Round Sheppey Race
1st-3rd September 2016

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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 eastern end of the island and goes west up the Swale to the rail bridge, with an interesting and unusual race feature --the boats come into the shallows to be walked under on their beam ends, with help from Club members (see pictures below)

  Back in the 1980s the event was in Catapult's regular calendar, and part of the TT schedule, and 14 Catapults took part in 1986. There is an Association prize for the first Catapult home, (photo at foot of page) and the shields show Jon Montgomery's wins in 1985 and 1991. (The Sheppey Sailing Club website still highlights his third place overall.)

 The race is in fast sailing water (with the land low-lying for the narrower stretches through the Swale Estuary.) The older catamarans designs are now the third  fleet away (an hour after the slow dinghy fleet heads off.)

It is a long race but Catapults complete it in around 3-31/2 hours. As well, it is laid out so the longest or more demanding stretches are at the beginning, so it seems to go faster and faster.

(Above: the shingle beach in front of the Club, 2010, the first fleet of Slow Dinghies already heading for the start.)

The first long stretch is down to the bluff at the NE corner, with the cat fleet spreading out, the small nu
mber of big cats vanishing into the distance, and Catapult staying with the Dart 18s (who often tack extravagantly downwind, so the same boats come back and forth across the Catapults.) It is fairly open water although seas are still small. The bluff  has the only significant wind shadow in the course, and needs a wider berth (but see 2018 race, below).

Then there another straight stretch  with clear breeze down to the wide turn at the eastern end of the island.
The water here is shallow a long way out, and I have seen children standing, and a Dart losing its rudder,200 yards from shore. Depending on wind direction, Catapult can take the turn more narrowly with the boards up and the rudders kicking up if a very shallow bit is crossed.

  If the prevailing SW or W breeze is fresh, the beat across the shallows at the foot of the island can be demanding, with the tide against the wind giving a steep chop, and the boat slamming. It is probably better to go well across to the far shore on starboard before tacking, and after that the water smoothes  out, and the beat is easier.

  In any breeze the stretches winding up the Swale estuary to the bridge go quickly in smooth water, with the tide making, and the added interest of catching the earlier fleets. Occasionally, a start at low tide leaves a long mud-bank in the mouth of the Swale estuary but usually there is clear water.

(Left: Alastair eases up the Swale in the 2011 race)
At the bridge, the boats are tipped (mast over towards the shore) and walked through (photos  below.) Club members are usually there to help, but not always.

 The approach to the small beach is narrow (photo right) with the approach obstructed by the jetty,  and it is the luck of the draw whether the beach is crowded.

  I have thought of tilting the rig to sail through (as Jon Montgomery is said to have done) but usually the bridge is much too low.

In 1985, the level of water at the bridge was quite low and Dermot Mangan was able to walk the Catapult through on the right hand side by heeling the rig, with just a bounce to get under a girder.

The railway bridge lifts between its two giant column (right) and once was open so Alastair sailed straight through---but this in now barred.

(Below: Chris takes his Catapult through, 2012 race, with Alastair just ahead, boat still tipped.)

(Left: Alastair heads off after the rail bridge in 2012 (with the new road bridge high above) still not noticing a rudder up)

After the bridge the river sweeps in wide turns past the ancient little port of Queensferry, usually with the tide, so that it is fast sailing in the flat water .

 Past Queensferry, the Medway estuary opens up, with a straight stretch past a mix of new port facilities and the old naval installations (photo below)

At the final turn, at Garrison Point, the Swale, Medway and Thames Estuary tides meet, with a deep back eddy. On the surface, these can kick up some standing waves (which broke over Alex' boat in the 2010 race, but may not happen at all)

(Below: the Victorian fort on Garrison Point.)

 In the estuary, working boats will assume right-of-way.The final turn has a few scattered standing piles, and some boats take a wide berth, but I have never seen anyone run out of water taking it closer.

From Garrison Point, the Club and finishing line are visible, and the final stretch seems quick (photo below)

catapults at Sheppey

  (Above: coming down the last leg to the Club from Garrison Point in the 2012 race, Alastair a bit ahead, and Chris due to nosedive and recover, perhaps in the gust hitting the Darts behind.)   (Photo James Bell)

   CATAPULTS ROUND SHEPPEY 2018  A fleet of three Catapults took on the 40 miles of the Round the Isle of Sheppey race, Sunday 9th September, starting in the third fleet. From the close start (photo below) broad-reaching in a fresh westerly, Alastair Forrest went well out to sea, planning to avoid windshadow from the bluffs on the island, but lost out badly to Mike Gough and Alex Montgomery with plenty of breeze inshore. As they turned onto the tight lead on the seaward shore, Alex built boat speed stretching out to lead the Catapults. Once round into the Swale, he took off, on a long port tack, hard on the wind and occasionally freeing, sometimes flying a hull. He caught the early fleets, and could land on an almost empty beach at the bridge to tip the boats.

Behind Mike welcomed the fresh breeze but had to come through the cloud of early starters up the Swale. At the bridge, he and then later Alastair (well back) struggled with the tide plastering them against the pontoon marking the small beach. Once through under the bridge (the race 3/4 done) the stretches were easy and fast on broad reaches around the top of the island to the club.

Alex was around in 2hrs 55 mins, the fastest singlehander, and 5th on handicap, beaten only by the Dart 18 fleet (which relished the fresh breeze and could punch through the chop with the wind and tide opposed.) (In 1991, Alex' father Jon, sailing the Catapult he designed, came 3rd, still noted prominently on the Race website

Entering on-line saves some money and time on the day, with sign-in at the Club to get safety tags and an entrant's flag. Because the four fleets start half an hour apart, there is plenty of time between the early briefing and the cat start to rig and get to the start.

 Rigging and launching  is easy on the wide beach in front of the Club (photo at top)) but there are two downsides.

The first is that there is a well-organised but long queue along the harbour wall to the Club and ramp, to unload the boat and trailer. Catapult can begin unloading while still in the queue before the ramp, but there is still a wait of 30 minutes or so.
(Left: the glittering prize for the first Catapult home, shields still available to be filled.)

The second downside is at the end, coming in with the tide high, when the beach has gone, so boats line up at sea for the ramp. A stream of boats comes up the ramp, to be then pulled down the road to the car park to de-rig. 

Given this, I have tried rigging and launching further down Marine Parade, around the corner and along to where a ramp goes up and over the the sea-wall to a shingle beach. Opposite is a wide grassy parking and rigging area, and once launched,  a 10 minute sail to the line.

 Parking near the Club at some point is needed to register and collect the safety tags, but this and  the briefing are 2 hours before the cat start. After the race, there is a big time-saving avoiding the queues (and I have driven up, boat loaded, to return my entrant flag and safety tag, meeting wet crews still pulling dinghies down the road.)

Where this cunning plan can go wrong is when the tide is very low, and a wide mud flat appears at the end of the ramp, and after struggling across this, a reef rears up between the launch place and the start! So it is a plan depending on knowing the tide times, usually not a problem, as the race is usually timed for the tide to be high  at the bridge.


Below:the prize giving for the Catapult class from the Round Sheppey Race 1985, at  Earls Court Boat Show.  From L: John Peperell , John Caig (Fireball Champ, also Catapult sailor) John Montgomery (Catapult designer, winner, front) Dermot Mangan (at back).



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