Friday, 31 May 2019

Fowey: British Moth Sea Championships

If I was a little battered and sore from the last weekend I was still in much better shape than my mobile phone, which simply died on me for no reason on Sunday morning. The alarm went off at 0730 as per our usual morning ritual, but the phone was in the main cabin charging off Calstar’s battery, and so out of reach for me from my bunk in the forecabin to complete my side of the ritual bargain and hit the snooze button. I am horribly addicted to the snooze button. The alarm on my phone is programmed to allow me no more than three on any given morning. Wonderful thing, technology.

In any case, out of my reach, it seems it snoozed itself. Or, to put it more succinctly, crashed and died, as technology is wont to do at times.

The replacement arrived today. The old phone did, happily, save all the photos I’d taken of the weekend up and until to then onto the cloud. It does mean that my photographic record of the last weekend terminated abruptly on Saturday evening.

Again, wonderful thing, technology.

Friday 24th May
Plymouth to Fowey
(29.2 nautical miles, 7 hours 46 minutes under way)

The sail out to Fowey on Friday was good. The wind was west of north-west as we cast off from QAB at 1130, but as the passage wore on, it veered into true north-west, lifting us towards our destination, so for most of the duration we remained settled on a close-hauled starboard beat that ran almost parallel to the Cornish shore, needing only the occasional tack onto port to keep us reasonably in touch with our intended course.

There were a couple of brief lulls where we succumbed and engaged the engine to keep to a reasonable ETA (one day I shall sail unenslaved to those three letters but not, I suspect, whilst I still have Dad or Nik aboard, so it's a necessary compromise), but each lasted only 12 minutes before conditions strengthened and we were back cleanly under sail again.

Other than those lulls, the wind held to a pretty constant F4 for the most part, although it was gusting to F5 for the first hour after our departure. It settled nicely for a few hours after we cleared Rame Head, and then finally picked up again for the last hour or two between Polperro and Polruan, gusting frequently up into a F5 from about 1630 onwards.

The wind would typically veer with the gusts though, lifting us even better onto our layline for Fowey. And despite the breeze, the wind direction brought it to us over the land; in the lee of the windward shore the sea state was very slight for the wind strength, so we made our way under full sail, the little yacht mostly heeled over to her sweet spot of around 20 degrees.

I always get anxious when my boat heels, though oddly not when I’m aboard anybody else’s, but this passage was easy in that the wind strength and direction were so constant. Typically, after a short while at 20 degrees I get used to the lean and the anxiety fades. And when the gusts hit later in the day, the sea was so smooth, I felt comfortable letting her tip over further with them just to see what she’d do, albeit hand never very far away from releasing the mainsheet, just in case.

As you’d predict, and as I've always known she should but can never quite cling to the idea as an article of faith, she’d be perfectly fine until she hit just over 30 degrees of heel, when she’d then benignly round up into the wind before finding her feet again as the heel reduced; then she'd bear away once more back onto her proper course.

A Westerly Griffon is a very forgiving boat.

We landed in Fowey at 1910, putting onto the Berrill’s Yard pontoon for the night, so were able to walk ashore and go find the friends we were meeting from the British Moth Fleet, gathered in the bar at the FoweyGallants Sailing Club.

Saturday 25th to Monday 27th May
British Moths Sea Championships & Mini-Race Series
(21 races, 30.9 nautical miles, 10 hours and 11 minutes under way)

I think I’ve explained before, but it bears repeating, the British Moths Sea Championships is a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek affair amongst friends. The British Moth is a 1930’s design; a very manoeuvrable but over-canvassed eleven foot dinghy originally intended for narrow rivers with high banks and light, shifty airs. Although modernisation to the design make them much more manageable on open water they are not a sea boat and their rounded scow bow (designed for tacking close in to the afore mentioned high banks) does not take kindly to waves.

But they are (mostly) pretty little boats with lots of character sailed by (occasionally) ugly sailors with character to match.

This is the ninth (almost) annual such event (it took a couple of years for them to invite us back after the first one) since a bunch of us from the Frampton Moth Fleet first brought our boats down to sail at the invitation of the Fowey Gallant’s John Burford. John has hosted us ever since. It’s been a few years since I last owned a Moth, but for the last couple of years I’ve still joined in as a guest, typically coming down to enjoy the weekend with Nik and so only sailing for half a day in a borrowed boat.

This year Ray, a friend from Chelmarsh Sailing Club, offered to bring a boat down for me to sail for the whole event. Feeling obliged to therefore use the boat properly (although I suspect Ray, being the kind of guy he is, would’ve probably brought it anyway and been content if I’d only sailed a morning with it), I discussed it with Nik, and she opted to stay at home for the weekend. There’s only so much you can do to distract yourself in a small town like Fowey for three days whilst your other half is out playing with boats. My wife’s interest in dinghy racing begins and ends in the Clubhouse bar.

Dad on the other hand was more than content to find his own distractions and was happy to sail over with me with Calstar; so that was boat, travel and accommodation sorted out.

We raced Saturday, Sunday and Monday; the racing was split into the Sea Championships proper which took place in the open harbour and a series of mini-races that we ran, for the most part, further up river. A total of 21 races all together, none of them were in particularly rough conditions although it did get blustery at times; I actually managed all three days without a single capsize, which has to be a first for me.

It wasn’t without incident.

During the harbour racing as the safety boat were setting the start line, I failed to notice they were streaming the pin end mark behind them, and managed to pick up its mooring line on my rudder. They very nearly awarded me newly inaugurated “The Ugly Scenes Trophy” for that but as I’d donated it (technically, stole it from my Mother-in-Law; it’s a wooden pig to which the Race Committee had added lipstick and a British Moth insignia painted onto its rump) they (thankfully) felt they couldn’t give it back to me. So Jenny got that one for falling, for no apparent reason whatsoever, out of the back of her boat.

Later during another harbour race on Sunday, I managed to snag the top of the mast of our youngest competitor on my shroud. Said youngster is a fine sailor, but a Moth is too much for him to handle comfortably in the harbour so he was racing against us in his Topper on an informal handicap; essentially a four minute head-start. I say “I managed to snag him”, but actually I was very clearly on starboard, sailing down my proper course, and he was, unfortunately, beating up to the windward mark on port.

However, whilst it was clear that I had right of way, there was a level of feeling amongst one or two of the leading boats that it was poor form to tangle with an eleven year old. I don’t disagree, and had I seen him in time, I would’ve gone out of my way to not collide with him. In the event, the lad was as nimble as a monkey, scampering onto the side of his boat to balance it as we pirouetted around each other in the harbour. We went around twice, inexorably attached, before his mast head slipped free of my shroud and be both crashed back down flat and continued on our respective courses.

There was later some discussion as to whether a 720 penalty turn counted if you were still attached to the boat you’d hit, but in view of his age and my arguments in his favour the benefit of the doubt was given (although his dad did argue against it briefly, claiming “They’ve gotta learn sometime”) and he wasn’t disqualified.

I’m employing some rather artistic licence in my recollection and depiction of events here, but I think I capture the spirit of the thing; nobody was hurt, nothing was damaged and neither of us capsized.

The shifty conditions and tendency of British Moths to all gather up on one another on the start-line gave me a couple of lovely port-flyers that won their respective  races. Much easier than on the lake; there’s plenty of room to hit the pin end with a minute to go, sail upwind for 30 seconds, then gybe and reach back for the pin, controlling your speed as you get closer and approach fast in the last few seconds to harden up close around the pin just as the gun goes, passing clear ahead of the entire fleet on port, remembering to look back and grin at them as you do.

I tried it with three out of the four or five Sea Championship races; the second time they shut me out of the line, but with the relatively small fleet it was easy enough to bear away behind them and then cross at the committee boat end in clean air on port and still make the best of it. I didn’t win that one, but had a credible enough finish that, when taken with my two wins before and after, gave me the British Moth Sea Championships Trophy.

Much to the good-natured consternation of New Boy (that’s been his affectionate nickname ever since he first joined the Moth Fleet at Frampton more than ten years ago); he came a reluctant second. Which was made all the more amusing by the fact that “ASBO”, the boat I was sailing, was his old boat before he’d sold her to Ray and commissioned himself a new Moth, “WooWoo”.

Monday concluded the official sailing programme with a series of mini-races. Three took us up-river in stages, then a couple of conventional courses were laid and run just below the village of Golant, before a couple of final races took us back down river to land back on the slip at Caffa Mill. It was a weekend of port-flyers for me, with another in the first race below Golant giving me a very credible win. I won the second Golant race as well when Gary, my nearest competitor, grounded himself in the shallows of the creek where the race committee had laid the wing mark of our triangular course.

On landing back at Caffa Mill I was then informed I’d been (quite fairly) disqualified from the mini-race series, as it was, in the spirit of the event, considered unsporting to win both that and the Sea Championships.

The three days were an absolute blast. There was across the three days some great sailing over 21 races with just shy of 31 nautical miles covered in just over 10 hours out on the water racing.

I’ve been on a bit of a winning streak of late, but in case I start to sound a little smug I’d like to stress that I’ve just been lucky. Lucky with the weather, and for this weekend, so much more of that luck was down to the boat, ASBO, and a quality sail, which of course Ray had leant me, and the carbon spars Mark (aka “New Boy”) had generously lent and rigged her with for me.

The front of the Fowey fleet, Gary, Andrew, Nicola and Mark, are all faster, more experienced Moth sailors than me all things being equal. It was just pure luck and good kit that gave me the day. And, according to New Boy, the sympathy of the race committee, although I would dispute that; John does not play favourites!

Tuesday 28th May
Fowey to Plymouth
(23.5 nautical miles, 5 hours 23 minutes under way)

It's funny how different the sailing is down here compared to the Bristol Channel. The biggest factor seems to be the sea state. It felt much more predictable in the confines of my old sailing area where the tide has a huge effect on the sea, but the waves are smaller and shorter, although often sharper, and it does mean that you get where you're going (as long as you stay in one piece and don't fight the tide) because you've generally got about six knots of tidal stream to pull you along regardless of what the wind is doing. And each change of tide felt like a reset to the sea state, at least in the upper reaches of the Bristol Channel.

But it wasn't unusual to have the second reef in the main and the headsail reduced to a postage stamp back when we were sailing out of Cardiff and Portishead, or to have spray crashing over the coach-roof . I don't think I've yet had to put the second reef in the main on the south coast. Even during the last stretch yesterday, beating into Plymouth Sound, the sea sheltered by Rame Head but the wind gusting up to a F6; with a single reef in the main, I just had to reduce the headsail and then play the main through the gusts as if Calstar were a dinghy to keep her on her feet.

The forecast was a north-westerly F4, gusting to a 5, but off the land, so the expected sea-state wasn’t more than a meter or two. Much more than that, or with the wind on a more south-westerly fetch straight in from the Atlantic, I might have delayed our departure. As it was however, it didn’t feel too bad on paper, and was only expected to get worse across Wednesday and Thursday.

So at 0630 Tuesday morning we cast off, heading home for Plymouth.

The sky was a heavy grey, thick with moisture and threatening rain. The sea was at first slight, but built as we left Fowey Harbour and turned east. We had a single reef in the main, and adjusted the roll in the headsail periodically to keep Calstar moving nicely, reducing it when the gusts built and started to trip her off her feet. A Furlex roller-reefing system on the headsail is an absolute blessing. That and the in-line reefing on the main means that I rarely have to leave the refuge of Calstar’s cockpit.

We held course on a deep port reach, tweaking the Raymarine auto-helm periodically to keep her bearing away from the shore as best we could without the shadow of the main collapsing the headsail, trying to lay the distant bulk of Rame Head and so avoid the need to gybe and stand off from shore to clear the headland.

As Fowey fell gradually astern, a stubborn sun struggled to break through the clouds to the east. Behind us, against a black and gloaming sky, a gorgeous rainbow arched across the horizon. The darkling sea was now carried serried ranks of lightly breaking waves bearing down on us from astern, driven by the wind, the foam breakers glistening in the watery, occasional sun.

Off the pretty harbour town of Looe, just under halfway through our passage and making good time, a squall hit, deluging us with thick, heavy rain.  As the wind increased with the downpour, it veered into the north-north-west, setting us onto a beam reach that would easily clear the still distant headland, and letting me overtake a small trawler slowly dragging her net between us and the land, leaving her clear to port. The downpour lasted no more than fifteen minutes and then cleared, leaving the climbing sun once more trying to break through the thick clouds overhead.

As we sailed across Whitesand Bay on the final approach to Rame Head, we were easily laying the headland on a beam reach, the wind now built to F5 gusting 6. Our ground speed crept over 6.5 knots at times, a respectable pace for our little bilge keeled yacht with her very grubby bottom. Rounding the headland, the sea smoothed in the lee of the land, but the wind continued to bluster.

Hardening up to lay the western entrance to the Sound, I reduced the headsail down to half, left the autohelm to take care of the course but played the main by hand through the gusts to keep Calstar on her feet, heeled between 20 and 30 degrees. Our speed continued to touch 6 knots over the ground through the more boisterous gusts, the leeway not too severe as long I kept her course cracked a few degrees free of close-hauled. The sea in the shelter of the land was perfectly smooth.

We brought her home onto her berth in Queen Anne’s Battery without mishap at 1155, after just under five and a half hours underway, and twenty three and a half nautical miles behind us.

It was fine sailing. And if you count the blasting around Fowey in a Moth in with the trip there and back with Calstar (which I shouldn't, but I shall for the fun of it), we covered 81.6 nautical miles and enjoyed just under 23 hours of being under sail.

So that made for a very fine weekend.

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