By David Ball
The weekend of 16th and 17th April saw the opening 2011 Sprint 15 TT event hosted by Marconi Sailing Club on the River Blackwater and sponsored by Windsport Catparts.
10 local sailors were joined by 9 visitors from Beaver, Grafham, Stewartby, Brighlingsea, Queen Mary and Shanklin. Unseasonably warm and sunny weather was unfortunately accompanied by unseasonably light and variable winds, however race officer Lee Harrison managed to complete the full schedule of 4 races over 2 days.
The plan for the weekend was 3 races back-to-back on Saturday, followed by one longer distance race around the islands of the River Blackwater on Sunday. The aim was to ensure to timely finish and prize giving on Sunday so that travellers could get home at a sociable hour. This proved successful, with wheels turning for the journey home by 3:30pm.
Race 1 kicked off just after high water, with the first of the ebb tide setting in as the start sequence progressed. The first leg turned out to be a delicate beat up the south shore against the increasing tidal flow. David Ball (Marconi) lead away from the start, pursued by Jon Postlethwaite (Beaver) and Jenny Ball (Marconi). Approaching the windward mark just off the club, the wind appeared to get more fickle whilst the current increased in the relative narrows between the shore and Osea Island. When a patch of breeze did appear the temptation for all competitors was to follow it further offshore, however the wind would the invariably switch off, leaving said competitor to drift rapidly back toward the start line whilst scrabbling to tack back in towards the shore. No one escaped unscathed from this frustrating cycle with the lead changing many times.
Peter Richardson (Marconi) and Nick Miller (Marconi) were the first boats to break from shallow water and attempt a final approach on the windward mark 100 yards from the shore. They almost made it and would have rounded with a commanding lead, but the fickle breeze abandoned them just yards short of their goal. Finally David Ball and Postlethwaite completed the illusive first rounding almost side by side, with Jenny Ball close behind. They set off toward the wing mark on the Island shore opposite, setting a cautious up-tide course in case the wind should fail again – there would be no chance of tacking back to the mark if it was missed. Behind them, the patience of many other competitors was finally rewarded, with a little breeze appearing at the right time (for a change) to help them squeeze around the mark.
Down at the leeward mark, David Ball rounded just ahead of Postlethwaite and Jenny Ball. Heading straight back to the finish line against the tide was not an option, so all boats made straight for the shore again, from where it was possible to ease along in the shallow water. David Ball took the finish gun followed by Postlethwaite and Jenny Ball. Miller made up good ground to finish 4th, followed by Erling Holmberg (Shanklin) who lead home the chasing pack.
Race 2 started with a promising force 2 breeze having built from the north west. The falling tide had also produced a wider band of shallow water and slower current for competitors to take advantage of when sailing against the flow. David Ball lead around the first mark, followed by Jenny Ball, Kirby and Postlethwaite. These 4 boats stayed together around the 2nd (now windward) mark and down to the leeward end of the course, with the rest of the fleet close behind. David Ball headed slightly inshore for the fetch back to the start/finish line in the hope of avoiding the ever-present tide, whilst Jenny Ball, Kirby, and Postlethwaite opted to protect their clear air and sail the more direct route in deeper water. With the breeze holding, Race Office Lee Harrison sent competitors on for a second lap, with David Ball just holding on to his lead from Jenny Ball by only 10 seconds at the finish, with Kirby, Postlethwaite, Kevin Dowley (Marconi) and Miller completing the top 6.
Race 3 started with the force 2 north westerly still holding out. This time it was Kirby who took the early lead at the first mark and lead a more tightly packed fleet out to the second mark. Kirby had built a commanding lead by the time he reached the 3rd and final mark, but the wind had not yet finished teasing this bunch of sailors, and switched off just as he rounded. Turning his boat to point up-tide toward the finish had little effect. Kirby began to drift backwards on the tide whilst the rest of the fleet (with the tide still under them) were fast approaching. Kirby held his nerve and headed straight for the shore, initially drifting down-tide of the chasing pack, but reaching the vital shallow water and slack current first, and from there clawing his way back upwind whilst it was now everyone else’s turn to point west whilst drifting east!
Behind Kirby, the chasing pack began to converge on the shallow water in one fairly tightly packed group. From where the race effectively re-started in the shallow water and light-to-non existent wind. Jenny Ball and Dowley made the best of these tricky conditions to pull clear into 2nd and 3rd place, with George Stephen (Queen Mary) sailing with the jib in “Sport” mode also breaking ahead of the pack. Some intense individual battles developed on this final leg, with Holmberg and Matthew Brown (Beaver) in particular trading places just yards form the line and finishing only 10 seconds apart after an hour of sailing (and drifting).
After 3 mentally challenging races it was time to retire the bar and a welcome hot meal prepared by Tina in the Marconi SC galley.
Sunday dawned with familiar sunny skies and light winds. The time had arrived for the popular figure-of-eight race around Northey and Osea islands, a regular and popular part of every TT at Marconi. With what wind there was blowing from the east, Lee Harrsion set a course with a short upwind leg from the club start line, before turning the fleet west (down wind and down tide) all the way to Maldon and the eastern tip of Northey island. As the start sequence approached, it became clear this upwind leg might end the race before it really got underway, with the real risk no one would be able to make the first mark against the tide and with a failing (again!) breeze. A quick change of course was agreed and the fleet set off on a down-wind and down-tide start. Thus began a 4 nautical mile leg with boats crossing in and out of each other looking for the most favourable tide and illusive patches of stronger wind. Kirby and Miller took an early lead. Jon Postlethwaite gave the locals a lesson in tidal sailing by sticking in the deep water and stronger current to good effect, whilst everyone else felt inexplicable drawn toward the Osea Island shore.
As the fleet approach Northey Island, Jenny Ball managed to pull out a clear lead, with Kirby close behind. The rest of the fleet was tightly packed around the back of Northey Island, with 10 or more Sprint’s rounding the submerged causeway only seconds apart.
The beat home commenced with the last of the flood tide now holding competitors back. Those that tacked off into the shallow water on the south side of Northey Island made gains over the rest. By the time the leaders broke clear of Northey and headed off for the north side of Osea Island the tide had finally turned and was providing a welcome push home. To improve matters further, the wind had freshened to a more steady force 2-3.
Kirby managed to overhaul Jenny Ball on this return leg, with Richardson also putting in an excellent display up upwind skill and boat-speed to catch the leaders, overtaking Ball and pressing Kirby all the way to the finish. George Stephen put the Sport rig to good use, crossing the line in 3rd place, and holding on to 5th place on corrected time.
When the results were tallied, Kevin Kirby came out on top, discarding a DNF from race 1 and scoring an impressively consistent 3, 1, 1 in very tricky conditions. David and Jenny Ball followed in 2nd and 3rd places respectively just 1 point apart whilst Jon Postlethwaite was the leading visitor in 4th place.
Full Series Results available here