Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Just another day sailing round the cans

(In the absence of anything to write about this week, a little piece from November 2009)

To set the scene, there we are in the Fireball just going round mark ‘A’ in a twenty-something mph WSW, half way around the 3rd lap of a fleet championship race. We’re in 3rd place and we’ve just lapped the RS300s, so you can tell it’s fairly windy. The next mark is ‘C’ and Pete in the boat in front is already halfway to ‘B’. He’s gone high, up by the wall, with a view to putting his kite up at some point, but he’s not rushing into it as we all know from previous laps that putting the kite up anywhere on this leg where you can’t get a decent angle to ‘C’ is a BAD IDEA, various boats tried it on the previous laps and it wasn’t pretty. Thus far, I have been sailing with self preservation uppermost in my mind, which is why the more risk-inclined boats are either well ahead or massively behind us.

But I want that 2nd place dammit. If only we had a turbocharger, or some big red button I could press to engage warp drive…

And I swear the big red mad spinnaker winked at me from its bag.

So we bung it up, and the wind promptly notices and comes over the wall in a big lump, and the world starts to go past us considerably more quickly. The initial acceleration is a fairly intense while the various forces battle it out for supremacy, and there’s a few iffy moments and the odd wobble. While this is going on, the slim delicate rudder blade whispers occasional messages suggesting that some of my demands are not entirely reasonable and that steering will become an optional extra if I continue in this fashion. And then it’s all under control again and there is nothing quite like this; the boat is fully engaged, crew flat out on the wire and all three sails are pulling 100%. Gust builds upon gust but we are now going so fast that the boat does little more than twitch as it skates across the flat water at the top of the lake making a noise like tearing aluminium. These adrenalin stretched moments are where sailing, poetry and art collide, this is as close to perfection as it is possible to get, and perfection is fast.

We’re going nowhere near the right way though, ‘D’ looks more likely than ‘C’ right now, and the further away from the wall we get, the windier it is. So as we pass ‘B’ (but way downwind) doing mach 5, I dump the kicker and the mainsheet and tentatively nudge the boat up a bit, and it still feels good. But it’s not going to be good enough to lay ‘C’ and we know from experience that this reach gets closer as you get near the water tower. Pete has gone for his kite too, but there’s no proper wind up there by the wall and his kite doesn’t look happy. A few hundred yards further on and it’s clear that ‘C’ is not going to happen without some help, so I pull a bit of mainsheet in and trip the spinnaker halyard. Paul bangs the sheet in tight and the big mad red kite goes for a quick lie down behind the jib, spread out flat by the wind. We nudge our way cautiously up to ‘C’ where the wind is much lighter, and note with some delight that Pete is now about three boat lengths behind us.

This is great, but there’s more to come. We bear off round ‘C’ for the run to ‘D’, the plan being that we continue on port tack to the far shore while sorting the kite, then gybe and it should be a decent run down to ‘D’ from there.  But I only get as far as giving a quick heave on the kite halyard, and before it has any real effect there’s a Flying Fifteen dead ahead which has just gybed onto starboard, and it’s clear that going round it isn’t an option. I yell something unhappy at the world in general and chuck the boat into a gybe. Crew does the thing with the pole and the wind kicks in again, and now we’re hurtling towards ‘G’ on a run with the kite still mostly horizontal, and I can’t pump it up because it’s so damn windy that the force on the halyard when doubled by my 2:1 pump system is more than I can cope with. So I resort to pulling directly on the halyard, but the take-up restricts the amount I can pull to about 8 inches each time and I am distracted by having to steer the boat and keep it upright and other minor details like that as it crashes grumpily from one wave crest to the next. The boat doesn’t like this, the kite is making scornful noises at me, and somewhere behind us I can feel Pete catching up. And now we’re in danger of going past D, so we sling in another gybe and incredibly still haven’t capsized when the dust settles on that one. In a rare moment of inspiration I tell Paul to leave the pole where it is (on the wrong side), thereby avoiding crew leaning over foredeck on a dead run in big waves type issues, and now I find I can hoist the kite up because it’s all tucked away behind the mainsail out of the wind. It goes up, we get to ‘D’ and I look back and decide not to mention to Paul that the Flying Fifteen we met earlier has just been blown flat behind us, as we go for the gybe….

Which we survive. And since the pole is already set for the reach to ‘S’, Paul bounds straight out on the wire and the big mad red kite sets instantly and is laughing insanely (or maybe that was me) as we hurtle past ‘D’ with the spray from our wake blowing off downwind. The waves are proper big out here and the wind is full on, and although I dumped the mainsail after the first five seconds, when we bear off in the gusts it fills anyway because we’re not far off a run and we go even faster. The boat bounces gleefully over the waves, atomising the water where it lands, and it’s still accelerating like it wants to get to the scene of the accident nice and early. And this is sooooo good, but even while I’m giving silent thanks that the Fireball is so manageable in these conditions, I’m also aware that the near future does indeed hold the probability of some kind of high speed unpleasantness and swimming.

Still, we get about three-quarters of the way along the leg and are still roughly on course and mostly upright. Now at this point there is a crew-boat interface problem, maybe wave related, maybe just the bouncing about, and Paul disappears briefly. When he reappears he is lying along the side of the boat with his legs near my ear and he’s dropped the spinnaker sheet. The boat is still upright and still bouncing across the waves, but it’s slowing down now, coming out of hyperspace, and the big red mad kite is making highly disapproving noises and shedding £5 notes by the second. Some sort of telepathy then occurs, where we both know that it’s time to quit while we're ahead (ie, still alive) and get the kite down, although nobody actually says so. So we do and it comes back to its bag like a soppy old rottweiler, tired but happy.

I risk a quick glance behind us, and Pete is now about a hundred miles back but he’s coming down the reach encompassed in a ball of spray like some sort of a wet doomsday machine, and you can just tell even from here that he’s not at all happy about how those last few legs played out. So we nip round ‘S’, pull the sails in, adopt the position and sail a steady and uneventful fetch up to J and OL and a very welcome finish.

We found out later that Pete had problems getting the pole to go on the mast on the way to ‘C’ and then managed to put the spinnaker sheet over the end of the boom, so our barnstorming victory was perhaps a little less impressive than it originally looked. And after all that, we didn’t even win, 2nd place was all that was on offer.

But in my head, that part of that race stays with me, tucked away in my collection of sailing memories of times when we tested the limits of what is possible, to the point where fantasy and reality briefly merged into one. And it was all absolutely great. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

A game of two halves

So after weeks of too much cold and not enough wind, we finally had a Sunday which offered a sensible F3 and an almost sensible 4-5 deg C. Typically this was a Sunday that Poorly Paul had booked off, so I was doing front-ballast duty in Paul Anthony's boat.

Now it should be said upfront that I'm an excellent crew in a F1, I can roll-tack and do all the tactical stuff and I'm fairly light with it. But my performance curve degrades in inverse proportion to the square of the windspeed, so by the time the boat starts planing I'm definitely a bit of a liability.

So, after a so-so start down at J, it was no great surprise that we were last at the windward mark (D). A close reach to 'B' gave me a chance to show how badly I can fly the kite while trapezing, but we discussed de-powering tricks on the way and arrived with the kite in the aussie-drop configuration without losing any more ground. A dead run to 'M', where we gained a bit due to the boats ahead having a minor battle, then a nice 3-sail reach down the shore to OL. Kite down, and off to 'H' on a slightly pointless close reach, where we overtook somebody for no obvious reason. Then a rubbish gybe where they overtook us back, followed by a leg back to 'J' and start again.

The next lap was vaguely similar and saw us trailing around at the rear again, but on the 3rd lap we managed to overtake Colin and Karen on the beat (I think) and weren't too far behind JT and Quentin on the reach to B and the run down to M. We nearly got past them on the outside at M, but they got themselves onto our wind and spat us out the back. We all had our kites up for this final leg to the finish, and somehow we managed to point a bit higher, gained some ground to windward, then picked up a tasty lump of wind and charged straight past them and over the line for 2nd place. Woohooo!

It's perhaps worth mentioning that Badders and JR had shown the entire fleet a clean pair of heels some time ago and were already ashore by this stage, but hey, 2nd place is fine, and I have to say that I really enjoyed myself too.

Then lunch, and being not just a useless crew but by now a knackered useless crew, we decided to swap places for the afternoon. And it was...


Rubbish start, rubbish first beat to 'D', OK reach to 'B', then a vaguely interesting leg to 'K', and we might still have caught up if we hadn't capsized while getting the kite down at OL. But we did, and after that it was pretty much game over. And we managed to lose some more time when one of the spinnaker sheets lost its twinner bobble, and then I ran us aground on the titchy island (now submerged), and it was all just awful.

One positive observation to come out of this then: the capsize was totally unnecessary. It happened because when Paul stowed the pole on the boom, the far end stuck down a bit, and the spinnaker sheet promptly flicked itself over the end of the pole, thereby stopping him getting the kite into the bag. Spinnaker poles ought to park themselves along the boom, completely parallel, maybe even a bit lower at the mast end. Then the far end doesn't stick down and catch yours truly on the head when gybing or pick up bits of flappy sheet and make you capsize.

The parking angle of the pole on the boom is dictated by the height of the pole uphaul fixing on the mast. This fixing point is invariably too high, resulting in the mast end of the pole being too high when parked. Obviously you can drop the pole a bit when you stow it, but that's just another distraction.

So here's what you do. Set the pole on the mast and get it at the right height for reaching - that's what we do most of. Now stow it on the boom. If the mast-end of the pole is above the height of the gooseneck then you have a problem. You need to lower the block on the mast which carries the pole uphaul, but you probably can't directly adjust this without moving the sheave block, which involves hacking flipping great holes in the mast, and that's a rubbish idea. So what you do is to position a little running pulley block lower down on the mast, to give the same effect without the metalwork.

This works for single and double ended poles BTW. You'll need to use a bit of trial and error to get the new pulley block at the right height, aim to get it roughly in the right place with about 8cm of string, then you can fine tune it by adjusting the length of the string. The principle is that wherever you put it you'll find that it causes the pole to set higher than it normally would have done. So you lower the pole a bit to get it to the right height when it's deployed, leading to it sitting lower on the boom when it's parked.

Et voila, no more stupid capsizes, at least not ones caused by pole-parking issues anyway.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Slipping down the slipways

I didn't sail last week as I was being wined and dined at the company AGM - an event that offered more time for sampling the cuisine than perusing the balance sheet. If you're interested, the venue was Love's Restaurant at the Glass House in Birmingham, and very good it was too!

So I was all fired up for a bit of sailing today, the forecast was 9 knots gusting to 12, and the temperature a balmy 5 deg C. But I'd reckoned without 2 inches of snow falling the previous day, which is bound to reduce the turnout a bit. And worse, the wind was rubbish again, more or less a flat calm at 9am, so Poorly Paul bailed out on the idea and I went sledging with the kids instead.

Later on we observed a grand total of 3 boats sailing the morning race, and two of them were Fireballs. Well done Firebally boys and girls, I take my hat off to you!

Now desperate to get back on the water. See you next week.