Wednesday evening Summer Class Series, Laser Fleet.
Six Lasers in the race, so not a bad turnout. The Handicap and Solo fleets sailing their own races alongside ours added another dozen boats to the water, so the warm, sunny evening had its usual, pleasant and friendly Frampton buzz about it.
I’ve just spent ten days aboard Calstar, loved every minute of our break, but was really, really looking forward to sailing the Laser again.
The air was light but moving; a north-easterly, so very shifty in both pressure and direction. Generally enough to “block to block” the mainsheet and hike upwind if you’re a lightweight like me, not quite enough to plane off-wind, except on very, very rare and brief occasions. Of the five other Lasers on the water, three of them have beaten me more than I’ve ever beaten them and can be uncatchable if they find their pace, so it was promising to be an entertaining race around a pretty simply figure of eight course.
I was especially pleased to see Mark out on the water. I’ve raced against his Laser often in my old Enterprise, he’s a good, if loud and boisterous sailor, and he’s nearly always beaten me. But he’s been away lately, so this was the first time I’d met him on the water since I’d got a Laser of my own.
It was a good start. I took advantage of a heavy bias and lots of space on a relatively long line to almost pull off the perfect port flyer. Almost. It was only spoiled by my mistiming the approach and having to slow down with a quick double tack to avoid crossing too early. The Laser is ever such a forgiving boat though, and accelerating off the line at the pin end I still managed to cross clear in front of the rest of the fleet who would otherwise all have had me on starboard.
The barracking started on that first leg to windward as I tacked onto port, clear ahead of Mark’s Laser, for a final approach to an unconventional starboard rounding of the Yellow windward mark (the windward mark is usually a port rounding, to encourage a safer, more organised starboard approach). He’d got a good start himself, on starboard but near to me at the favoured pin end, and I presume he had used the lift generated by the lee shore to our left and sailed a good first beat to catch up with me, undoubtedly also helped by my fumbling the port flyer. The rest of the fleet were all some way behind, making it quite safe to approach the starboard rounding on port.
“If you’re going to tack in my water YOU'D BETTER GET IT RIGHT!”
As I’d tacked ahead of him, he was at this point eating my dirty air to leeward and I imagine wasn’t especially pleased with the fact. It is the sort of thing he’d notice.
However, it wasn’t his water, it was mine and anyway, why would I want to tack? I’d intentionally sailed up to and tacked on the port lay-line. I rounded easily, going high to protect my wind; and because I’d come in too tight to the mark. I didn’t judge the lay-line that well and had to pinch to squeeze around, and was being pressured (if only slightly) by the barracking coming from astern and so was slow and wide with the bear away. But I’m going to claim it as tactical, and I intentionally remained high, delicately trying to balance the clear air gained against the interference of the wind-shadow from the trees on the windward shore. Mark followed, bearing away around the mark and then sailing deep for clearer air.
The wind fell to a lull on us about halfway down the very shifty reach cum run to the next mark at White, but a fresh gust filled back in further up the leg, leaving the two of us still little more than ghosting for the moment but bringing Rhonwen and John swiftly down the run to catch us up. A typical, fluky Frampton north-easterly, and so nothing much to sweat about. But the moaning and complaint from Mark’s boat a few boat-lengths to leeward of me was doubtless audible to everybody on the lake: “No, oh no!”, “What’s the point in sailing skilfully?”, “Just gets stripped away again!”, “Chance!”, “Pure luck!”, “No skill!”, etc, etc.
It's a fifty acre, tree-lined lake, the trees now in full, verdant leaf. There is always an element of lottery to racing at Frampton, much increased if the wind isn’t the prevailing south-westerly funnelling straight up the neighbouring Severn Estuary. But I’ve noticed despite that, if you don’t get things exactly right, you will always get beaten by somebody else who does. You’ve just got to grin and occasionally bear the vagaries of chance. This time she favours them, next time she’ll favour you.
I hardened up around White onto a beat towards a port rounding on the next mark at Green-Yellow, predictably nestled just on the edge of the windward shore’s wind-shadow. Mark was still close on my stern until I tacked off, misjudging a shift, and he held his line, sailing out to the right whilst I took the left. Still with a respectful, if now reduced lead on the other two, we got to the next mark on top of an Enterprise at the back of the Handicap Fleet. Mark had gained and was now just ahead of me. The three of us bore away onto the reach down to the final leeward mark, Mark making yet more noise with demands as to what I should do and querulous questions as to why I was doing that and what I thought I was playing at as we turned, virtually on top of one another. As the wind filled in and the boats picked up speed, I sailed high and onto Mark’s wind, not with any hope or intention of overhauling him, but with half an eye on gaining an overlap at the next mark or, if he defended properly as he was bound to do, at least staying close enough in touch to have a fair chance of taking him back on the next beat.
The complaints were brash, immediate and loud: “DON’T SAIL WINDWARD OF ME!”, “I DIDN’T DO IT TO YOU!”, “NO!”, “OH NO, COME ON!”
The vocal cacophony was accompanied by aggressive luffing, which I’d expect from anybody I was racing against to prevent me sailing over them. I had no complaint at that, and he gave me plenty of room to stand clear. I’d have done exactly the same in his position, if only to make the point. But without the sound effects, and there does come a point where you’ve slowed both yourself and your competitor down so much and are both now so high off the rhumb line that everybody else just sails blissfully past you to leeward. In this case, the “everybody” was John, a quiet, relaxed smile on his face as he happily dropped both Mark and I into second and third place respectively. The Enterprise that had impeded us at the last mark followed him, clear ahead of us still but sailing his own race. Letting it get ahead was going to have further consequences shortly.
Meanwhile, I simply chuckled at the verbal torrent coming from the other boat, and actually laughed as I watched John glide by beneath us both. I’d like to think I’m generally a sympathetic, easy going soul, competitive yes but not, as a rule, aggressive. I certainly don’t take joy or amusement at another’s frustration. But there are occasional exceptions, and this race was proving to be one. Mark, I’m sorry, but yes, you were making it easy to laugh at you.
We both hardened up around the leeward mark, wide in, tight out and hiked hard onto the new beat. Mark was about a boat length ahead now, and just astern of the Enterprise.
Nobody racing an Enterprise in the Handicap Fleet is a new sailor. Even the newest crews are competent. But just because you’re a competent sailor, you are not necessarily a confident racer. We were catching up with the back markers of the handicap fleet. That’s not where you find either the most confident racers nor the most aggressive helms. We’re club racing, amongst mixed fleets with a wide range of abilities, confidence, ability and needs. We all have different things we’re look for and want to take from our racing. At the front of the fleet you’ve really got to acknowledge that and, allow for, accommodate and encourage the guys at the back.
Mark didn’t do that.
“NO! DON’T TACK!”, “YOU’RE TACKING!”, “NO!”, “YOU’RE TACKING IN MY WATER!”, “OH NO, COME ON!”
He could’ve luffed, he could’ve anticipated the inevitable, could’ve slowed briefly, squeezed astern of them and carried on with his race. Just shown a bit of patience and courtesy and been none the worse for it.
Instead he tacked with them, heading with them out to the right and away from the lift of the leeward bank he’d originally been after, pointing high into the wind, heeling to windward and lee-bowing them, all the while yelling “UP! UP! UP!” in an attempt to exert his rights over them, to slow them down and encourage them to tack off. They were to windward, and thus the give-way boat and obliged to stay clear, and “Up!” is racing short-hand for pointing this out to another racer.In any case, they carried on all the way over to the right, presumably feeling stressed, intimidated and utterly baffled as to why this aggressive, intimidating Laser sailor was sailing so close under their bow and continuously yelling at them to look up at the heavens?
I didn’t see much of Mark after that. Heard him a fair bit, always some way back, and at one point yelling “Protest!” at another Laser. I think John must’ve struck out for the right hand side of the course too early as well although momentarily preoccupied with Mark and the Enterprise I didn’t see for sure. But I held to the left, picking up the expected lift, and by the time I reached the windward mark at Yellow had clawed my original lead back and kept it through the remainder of the race, although John never once let up on the pressure and ultimately didn’t finish too far behind me in second place.
I had a great evening’s racing. Even the stress of the first lap and a half when I was continuously tangled up with Mark’s Laser (and thus opinions, instructions, complaints and frustrations) was good fun, although I really couldn’t approve of how he treated the Enterprise. After they’d tacked and I passed astern of both, I yelled at the Ent to just laugh and otherwise ignore him, and they’re both experienced enough racers to have taken that advice in good heart and applied it accordingly. But that sort of behaviour with a true novice can discourage them from racing, or even sailing, for life. I know this because I’ve seen it happen with others.
Although in Mark’s defence I don’t for a second believe he’d actually behave like that with an actual newbie. He’s a good man, and I’ve only ever known him to be truly welcoming and supportive of beginners.
This isn't an attack on Mark, and although I can't help but colour some of the narrative with my opinion, I've tried to keep it purely observational. Although do keep in mind that it's my observation, and both my observation and recollection are prone to being flawed. I'm really just trying to describe a lovely night's sailing, because that's exactly what I had. And I like Mark. He is a friend and I can weigh all of the above in context with that friendship. So don't be too swift to skip to judgement.
A little bit of hazing at the front of the fleet is one thing. I do think context is everything though. There is a place for aggression, ruthless competition, vocal intimidation and blatant, brash assertiveness. But it’s not in local club racing. Although I can happily rise to it if I must. I have the armour of being able to laugh at myself, and a thick enough skin to enjoy the cut and thrust. I even draw amusement from the frustration it inevitably creates, whether my own or the competition’s. However, I don’t think the same is true of most other people on the water. It's exactly what a lot of non-racers believe they don't like about racing, exactly how they believe we all behave and one of the reasons they'll cite as to why they don't race. And I think the risk is that it poisons the atmosphere for most of us that do. And that’s regrettable.
More so because when you’re not racing Mark, you’re a lovely bloke. A good friend, a gifted sailor, an exceptionally generous, gregarious, humorous soul and always, without fail, a pleasure to be around. But we didn’t see much of that last night, and much as your antics may have clouded other folks’ time out on the water, I don’t think you enjoyed yourself much either.