Thursday, 16 November 2017

Buffy: an unexpected day off

The forecast was an interesting one for this weekend just gone. An essentially moderate 15ish knots or so, but gusting to 35 or more. Things are around here are definitely beginning to feel autumnal.

That put paid to any plans for sailing Calstar, so Saturday was, following an hour of karate in the morning, squandered at home tidying up the garden and cleaning the kitchen. That pretty much saw off the day. The evening didn't involve anything more aduous than watching "Blackhawk Down" on Netflix and a few bottles of beer. I sometimes think I ought to feel guilty about drinking at home. But if I didn't drink at home, then when would I get the chance to drink?

We'd had a gig booked for early Sunday evening down in Bristol, which originally put certain restrictions on any other plans for the weekend, but on Saturday morning I had a call from the venue's new manager explaining that he'd been told the previous manager had cancelled us earlier in the year so he'd subsequently double-booked us with a karaoke. I'm never one to turn down the offer of a gig, but I have to admit I was almost relieved. I'd spent the week working up to it trying to work out what time we'd need to get to the venue to set up, and whether or not that would give me enough time earlier in the day to race Buffy at Frampton first. With the gig cancelled, I effectively had an unexpected day off, so freedom to race around the lake at my leisure. And I'd had the foresight to message Amanda a few days earlier to ask if she was available to race with me.

So I had a crew to race with.

35 knot gusts. I was trying, ever so hard, not to get my hopes up too much.

It was grey, flat and raining softly when I first arrived at the Club on Sunday morning at a little after 1000, so the first thing I did was go get changed into my drysuit before getting the boat out.

Which duly brought the sun out not ten minutes later. A light wind was blowing from a northerly direction as I rigged the Enterprise. Two minutes silence for Remembrance Sunday at 1100 and then we launched. Two races, the first a pursuit, then followed by a general fleet handicap, both races about an hour long and running back to back, the latter being a new format for Frampton. In the lead up to the start of the first race, the wind began to build as forecast. There was one other Enterprise on the water with us, Geoff and Sue in "Ghost". The wind, typically shifty as it always is when in the north, put a huge port bias on the start line but neither us nor Geoff thought to do anything with it. Ghost had a pretty grim start, about ten seconds late to the line; for reasons I can't explain let alone begin to excuse, ours was worse, and we were closer to twenty seconds late going over. The first beat was a boisterous, gusty affair, both Amanda and I hiked out hard for a lot of it to keep the boat flat and driving.

Since Hels retired from sailing to chase other interests, I've raced with Amanda a couple of times now, but both the previous occasions had been little more than drifts. We're not especially practiced at sailing together, and still find ourselves pulling on the wrong bits of rope and rushing the occasional roll tack, although we've mostly stopped colliding with each other when we do so (although I did in the second race accidentally clout her around the back of the head with the tiller extension). However, Amanda's quick on her toes, has good balance and is not shy of hiking hard when needed; although we started well astern of Ghost, the blustery, energetic beat up to windward saw us catch back up with them and pass ahead just before we rounded the windward mark.

They snuck back past us again halfway through, but with the conditions building through the race, our stamina paid off and we regained our lead again. And then, in the closing five minutes of the pursuit, we found ourselves ahead of and outside of a gust astern on a downwind leg that brought Ghost, Phil in his Aero and Ian in his Solo screaming down on top of us just as we hit the gybe mark.

The Aero left us for dust as we sailed high, pushing Ghost hard to windward. I don't remember if we broke her overlap, it's possible we might have cleared the leeward mark just ahead of them, but the wind had dropped for the last beat, and so between there and windward they inexorably pulled out in front to round ahead of us in the dying minutes of the race. Another unlucky gust accelerated the Solo past us to leeward shorty after, again leaving us untouched,fading just as the increased pressure would otherwise have hit our sails. Three places lost in the final moments of what was otherwise a great race.

The second race saw the wind building even more as noon came and passed. A heavy port bias but relatively short startline meant we all queued up and started in an unruly gaggle on starboard, with most of us tacking off onto port as soon as we were able.

I don't remember if we beat Ghost to windwards again in the second race, but we had a better start (which, to be fair, isn't saying much compared to start of the race before), and by the second lap were certainly ahead, but with her and a gaggle of Solos snapping closely at our tail. The OOD had set a classic Frampton course back and forth across the lake around six separate racing marks, including, perhaps maliciously given the forecast, four gybes; although even in the gusts, at least up until about then, they had been quite managable in the Ent. A few of the single-handers were capsizing here and there to keep the safety boat on their toes, but we'd not had any real concerns.

After the inital beat and the first windward mark at Yellow, the second leg of the course was a broad reach from the there down to the first gybe at Red, which turned into goose-winged run about halfway down as the wind bent to port. Ghost and the clutter of single-handers were just astern of us as we prepared to take the gybe, when a massive gust hit just as I started the turn to leeward. The little dinghy lurched violently, trying to claw back to windward and broach; already too far committed, I brutally forced the tiller over and Amanda hauled on the kicker to coax the boom across. A tangle of shouting and spray passed to windward of us as the boats astern, Ghost amongst them, aborted any attempt to gybe and instead tried to tack through. Our boom came across with a bang and a splash, Amanda and I hiked to try and bring the boat flat and hauled in on the sails. Buffy lept away like a thing possessed, gripped in the teeth of a huge gust.

The next leg should've been a close-hauled fetch, but I quickly gave up any pretense of trying to lay the mark and instead footed off to flatten the boat and let her plane down towards the opposite shore on a close reach, determined just to keep her upright until the gust had blown through. The compromise paid rich rewards, and we were already happily gybing around the next mark at Green-White by the time Ghost and the Solos astern had untangled themselves enough to finally navigate their way around Red.

The rest of the race kept up this brutal tone. A short while later, Ghost capsized, took a while to get back up, and so retired. We took one tumble, simply overpowered on the beat, my tiring hands not spilling the wind from the sail before the heeling boat locked the boom in to the water and a swim became inevitable. For Amanda, at least. For my own ignoble part, I stood on anything I could find and scrambled up over the windward gunwhale and straight onto the centreboard, keeping happily dry. But it also meant we were able to get Buffy back up quickly, still pointing in the direction we'd been going, and were able to get on with our race. Of course, an Enterprise being what it is, she came up swamped with water, gunwhales submerged, hanging on her bouyancy bags. The next half a lap was akin to sailing a bathtub full of water.

The rest of the hour was fantastic, physical sailing, hard hiking up the beats, joyous screaming down the reaches, and abject terror at the four gybe marks. We chickened out at two of them and wore around with a tack instead, but didn't capsize again despite everything the afternoon had to throw at us.

We finally finished fourth out of a fleet of twelve, the swamping that resulted from our one capsize inevitably costing us, despite our quick recovery. Of the twelve boats that started, six had retired before the end, so it's probably fair to say we secured our fourth place through simple attrition rather than any great merit due our sailing.

It's sailing like that which leaves me feeling conflicted and thinking twice as to whether or not I'm going to sell the Enterprise at the end of this year. I really enjoy the freedom and flexibility of racing single-handed, but there is definitely something very rewarding about finishing a hard race in a double-hander, about sharing the thrills and spills of such a race with your crew.

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