Round the Isle of Sheppey Open Race
September 2nd 2011

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  I did the Round-Sheppey Race for the fourth time on September 2nd 2011 (on a true summer’s day just before autumn struck.) Windguru accurately forecast SSW, varying 10 to 20 mph.

  This is a 40 mile race clockwise around the Isle of Sheppey, starting at Sheerness, with
sea, river, and estuary tidal sailing. It has been going since 1959 and is the longest dinghy race in Europe. 

    After the two long sea legs, the race turns around the shallow south-eastern end and goes west up the Swale to the bridge, where boats are tipped over and pulled through on their sides  in the shallows.

   I went again to the launching ramp over the sea wall and beach a mile south of the hectic activity at the Club itself, to where there is grassy space for rigging and parking.

  No other Catapults joined in this year (coming soon after the Bridlington nationals) but at the beach I ran into Ray Gall, down from Carsington with his Sprint 15 DX to try out the race

  Catamarans were the last fleet away, at 1200. In contrast to other years, this was only one hour after low water, and the race nearly came unstuck before it started for me, or more accurately stuck fast, with a long push across sandy mud to the water, saved by combined efforts with Ray and his wife, leaving us perilously close to the start time, made with a few minutes to spare.

  The wind dropped away just before the start, and the fleet jogged along in sunshine on the long broad reach to the  bluff marking the NE corner of Sheppey, keeping closely matched speeds, bar the solitary Tornado. (Overall, there were few big fast boats this year, after the smashing of records last year, maybe because of the risks to a big boat going fast in the approach to the bridge, and the labour of tipping safely.)

 The Catapult stayed easily with the Dart 18s, in basic speed, and as a consequence of their maintaining tacking downwind, even though the direct line was a broad reach on port---swinging over to starboard, several must have had a negative VMG for the board out to sea. Getting to the high bluff, I was too close in, and lost wind, so the Darts stretched away in the fresh breeze on the tight lead beyond it, until I caught the breeze to power along, and start catching the first of the monohulls.

  The next tactical decision how far to stay out from shore around the southern end of the island, sacrificing some gain to windward---certainly further out than children up to their knees a hundred yards out. Once out into the mouth of the Swale it was hard on the wind, the breeze up enough for trapezing, keeping good speed through a steep chop, wind against the tide up the Swale.

catamaran sailing uk   The low tide heaved the sandbank out at the entrance, to mark two channels (which in previous years I had gone straight over without noticing.)

More by chance than judgement, I took the narrower island-side channel, needing a short starboard board in the channel, but gaining on the boats passing on the other side who had to overstand to windward to into the wider channel.

(Left: the top of the Swale, running to the bridge, Dart 18 coming up the channel behind.)         (Photo Peter Fisher, IOSSC)

   The gain let me meet Ray again after the island, a little ahead, who I then chased up a long port tack up the narrowing channel, trapezing with occasional lulls and passing the monohulls (musing on the advantages of riding a fast stable cheap boat, going past the various modern small monohulls, although I guess they give good club racing.) The wide S-bend in the narrowing waters to the bridge passed very quickly as always (a stretch dead down-wind and then reaching,  the river getting crowded, a few gybing capsizes, and the Darts again beginning tacking downwind.)

  At the bridge, the “tipping” procession had no club assistance, so it was every man for himself, or woman in the case of the Laser I was cooperatively tangled with. Tipping and wading through went faster than last time and there was help to right the boat on the far side, to reach off under the new very high road bridge.

catamaran sailing uk

  (Left: leaving the bridge, not yet noticing one rudder is still up.)  (Photo Glenn Jones.)

Next time I might tip the mast to starboard-- at least it will make tipping and re-righting easier, and it might allow getting through with the port hull just slightly lifted, which would make the recovery on the other side quicker (and the shroud line is marked to get the vertical position.) Of course a fresh easterly on-shore would be another matter, with the tide also running against the wade through.

  The stretch away from the bridge, (with the bridge struggle and four-fifths of the race behind) was very fast---flat water, unobstructed fresh breeze across the marshes, and a broad reach, shooting away from the Dart 18s behind, and gybing through the S-bend past Queenborough, with one brief warning grounding on mud with the boards up.

  Then out into the Medway, and a calmer flat run past the docks to the Victorian Fort (photo below) and then the steep waves in the crossing tides at Garrison Point (much less than in previous years) with the club in sight once rounded and only the fast reach to the finish to go.

catamaran sailing uk   It took 3 hours 42 minutes, and I came 15th overall on handicap, of 117 starters, with Ray Gall's Sprint 15 DX on the same PYN just ahead in 14th.

 This may be flattering, as half the first 12 finishers were from the cat fleet, which had had less time in light winds.

  On handicap, this was 8th in the cat fleet of 27, and on finishing times, I was halfway up the Dart 18s.

 Looking at going round as a single-hander, I was behind the two Sprint DX.s, a Sprint Sport and just behind one of the two Unicorns --- this year, the Int. Canoes were slower.

   We ran down quickly to the beach launch, now with the tide well in. Its real advantage is obvious after the race --- we got ashore quickly to de-rig, and when I was packed up with the boat on the roof, (driving back to the club to return the safety token) I was passing lines of boats being pulled along the road to the car park to disassemble, after queuing for the club slipway.  

   The race gives long fast stretches in fairly smooth water with unobstructed breeze, and counters fatigue by appearing to go faster and faster---after the long first stretch to the NE bluff, each section is successively shorter and more varied, and the craziness of the bridge marks being nearly there.       

Alastair Forrest

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