Two days into the RS400 UK & Irish National Championships at Royal North of Ireland in Belfast, light winds were shuffling the points race by race leaving some of the big guns struggling to break free to the top of the table. All, that is, apart from one pair who seemed to have found order in the tricky conditions.
Only the plane spotters in the fleet would have noticed when Belfast airport switched runways, but the move was significant. Coupled with the collapse of the cumulus clouds around Belfast city and the surrounding land to the south, the indications were that the thermal breeze that had been providing a steady ENE breeze in the loch had switched off and the SE gradient breeze that had been forecast had now taken over – even though it wasn’t yet on the water’s surface.
The switch caused chaos throughout most of the fleet particularly for those that had bet their positions on heading out to sea once again for the third and final beat. This time they found themselves on the wrong side off the new breeze. The result was that the fleet turned inside out for all but the front runners.
Among those to slip through unscathed was Nick Craig and Toby Lewis, fresh back into the class. Indeed, so fresh that at 7am on the day of the first race they rocked up, hot foot from the Merlin nationals in Looe with a brand new 400 that had yet to be unwrapped and proceeded to build it between breakfast and midday.
“We had to assemble everything and only used the hammer once,” said Nick. “The fact that we were so late broke all the rules of championship preparation but it was that or go back to work.”
By the time they launched their boat was been covered in tuning notes and strands of tape to mark the various rig settings - never has the multiple former national champions been quite so public about their settings.
On the race course, despite a poor start, Craig and Lewis (1500) forged their way to the front to take the first win of the event. Peter Kennedy and Stephane Kane (1339) from the host club were second and Stephen and Sarah Cockerill (1489) from Stokes Bay in 3rd.
For the second race and with the light 5-7 knot breeze coming offshore from the south and the tide sweeping to the east, all the visitors were back to square one when it came to decoding the conditions. But after three laps it was clear that two teams had figured things out as the Cockerills (1489) took a win with Craig/Lewis (1500) taking third to leave the pair one equal points in pole position at the end of the day.
Proving that local knowledge was handy, Paul McLaughlin and Owen McKinley (1406) from Cushendall SC finished second in the second race.
Behind them some of the favorites in the field were already carrying some big scores, shuffling the pecking order in a way we haven’t seen for some time.
“At this rate I think there’s going to be quite a battle in the bronze fleet this week,” joked Kevin Podger (1439).
A slight increase in wind strength to 7-8 knots and a more stable wind direction from the West suggested that racing would be more straightforward on Day 2 – it wasn’t.
A new direction and an earlier start meant that anything anyone had learned about the tide was now irrelevant. In addition the tight competition in the fleet meant that after each start the pack arrived at each of the marks en-masse making it hard to break free at any point.
Approaching the first windward mark in good shape in the leading pack was no guarantee for future success, especially if you arrived on port tack.
Discovering a wall of boats on starboard that were battling to lay the mark against the ebbing tide provided nowhere to go left plenty to end up gybing before the mark in an attempt to find a gap in the wall of sail.
But once again it was Craig and Lewis (1500) that took the upper hand winning race the first race and taking second in the second.
By now, the former multiple national champions extended their overall lead there were others who were making their presence felt too as they delivered top five positions. Among them; Mark Oakey (also a former RS400 National Champion) and Ben Robertson (1463), Robert Espey and Richard McCullough (1006) from Ballyhome YC and Mike Simms and Jack Holden (1488) from Carsington SC and Arun SC.
If you gauge value for money at a championships by the number of starts you get, Day 3 was a bumper special.
The day kicked off with a postponement ashore as the race committee waited for the forecasted light southerly gradient breeze to develop. But when the fleet arrived at the course area, the 7-9 knot offshore breeze was causing all kinds of problems for the race officials as the direction danced back and forth along the shore. This was not a day to be a race officer unless you had an aptitude for nailing jelly to the wall.
Setting a square line was almost as tricky, but the real problem was encouraging the fleet to stay behind it before the gun. Even a blag flag didn’t appear to be a big enough stick.
The result was four abandoned starts and a list of 11 boats on the naughty step. Among those forced to sit out the first race while they thought about what they had done were plenty of the big dogs, including Nick Craig and Toby Lewis (1500). Among the others keeping them company in the sin bin were Mark Oakey and Ben Robertson (1463) and Mike Simms and Jack Holden (1488).
When the fleet finally got away for the first race of the day the breeze had built to the point that everyone was hiking hard off the line. But as the pack approached the top mark under the shoreline, the breeze fluctuated wildly in strength and direction and performed the first of several shuffles of the pack.
By the finish it was Stephen and Sarah Cockerill (1489) who took the win, Barry McCartin and Andrew Penny (1264) took second and Robert Espey and Richard McCulloch (1006) in third.
By the start of the second race the breeze had gone against the forecast and dropped slightly leaving those that cared about such things scrambling around in their effort to change rig settings.
The direction was also still running back and forth along the shore making it difficult to predict which side of the course would pay. Many felt that a set of dice would have been more useful in predicting what would happen next rather than a strong opinion based on sketchy evidence, yet a look at the results suggested that the big guns had it sussed once again as Craig/Lewis (1500) delivered another of their now familiar wins.
But according to Nick the victory had been anything but easy.
“We ended up on the wrong side of the first beat and rounded the top mark in 20th,” he said. “Gradually we managed to chip away at this through the rest of the race but only took the win on the last gybe into the finish. It was a real needle match behind between Mike Simms (1488) and David Jessop (1004).”
As a plan for how to succeed after a duff first leg this was clearly the kind of strategy that many of us further down the pack had in mind but failed to deliver. But it always sounds easier when described by a winner.
Despite being the bad boys of the day, at least to start with, Craig and Lewis (1500) have been able to discard their BFD and extended their leading margin with a total of just 8 points. The Cockerills (1489) remain in second with 20 points, as Dave Exley and Mark Lunn (1460) muscle their way into third with 36 points.
Behind them the points are much closer with plenty of evidence of a full on scrap to come.
For the more extra-medium sized crews in the fleet, Day 4 was just the ticket. A solid 15+knots from the WNW provided the opportunity for many of us to sit on the same side of the boat as our crew on the upwind legs for the first time in the week, while the new wind direction added another variable into the mix for all.
The clearer than forecast skies also allowed thermals to build on the hills at the upwind end of the loch which in turn dragged down the gradient wind aloft onto the water’s surface boosting the breeze with gusts that came down rather than across.
But whatever the interpretation of the weather, the bottom line was that this was the breeziest day of the week and delivered some fully powered uphill climbs and three slick downhill rides.
When it came to the racing, after a difficult start to the week, Mike Simms and Jack Holden (1488) finally found their mojo to take the first win of the day and their first bullet of the week. Nick Craig and Toby Lewis (1500) took second, while Robert Espey and Richard McCulloch (1006) nailed third.
But if the fleet had stared to get its head around the conditions, the weather decided to throw in a googly.
For those that were looking aloft for clues, the skies had cleared and the thermals had stopped dragging the upper breeze down onto the water. This, along with a forecast drop in the gradient breeze throughout the day saw a step change for the start of Race 2 with around 10 knots across the course.
What did remain was an uncomfortable sea state making it tricky to keep the pace upwind, as well as adding more to think about on the downwind legs. It was this that caused another reshuffling of the pack as even the big guns found it difficult to read the conditions to their advantage. Most notable was an uncharacteristic 7th place for Craig/Lewis and a fourth for the Cockerills (1489).
Taking line honours were Espey and McCulloch (1006) with Sean Cleary and Annalise Nixon (1377) in second and Chris Penny and Jessica Rutherford (1436) in third.
In the overall standings, Craig/Lewis continue to lead the field with a 14 point margin over the Cockerills who only have a three point lead over Espey and McCulloch.
Behind them a fierce scrap is developing down the pecking order to Howard and Louise Farbrother who are currently lying in 10th overall.
The final day’s racing promises to be a punchy affair with breeze well into the 20s and while most were contemplating how to spend an afternoon on the lawn at the Royal North of Ireland without peaking too soon at the club’s super hospitable bar, others had become twitched by some action in the dinghy park.
Stories of Nick Craig’s broken mainsail halyard after just three days spread like wildfire as crews lowered their masts to check for chafe.
Even those who knew their halyard was fine were fiddling and fettling in preparation for the final day’s show down.
Or, after a night on the town in Belfast yesterday, was it just to stay away from the bar?
Big Thursday had been on the cards all week. A strong south westerly breeze with the threat of squalls associated with a trough of low pressure delivered a forecast for 25knot gusts that had been consistent all week. Given the predominantly light conditions that had prevailed up until then, the sight of white horses across the entire loch was an intimidating sight, while out on the course the race committee were reporting at steady 22knots with gusts up to 28.
With the breeze accelerating around the small headland off the club, launching was a punchy affair too and saw several trip up within a 100m of the slipway – no names, no numbers – but this rattled some and caused others to have second thoughts about whether to head out at all. Some poked their noses out and returned, others chose to keep their bats dry for the day
For the 30-odd boats that did head downwind to the start area, the ride was a tricky one, especially for those that chose to conserve their strength and keep the kite in the chute. Burying the bow at speed put an uncomfortable load on the rudder, drenched the crew and raised the anxiety levels once again.
But when the racing got under way and the red mist of competition descended, it was back to normal as crews egged each other on to launch kites for the downwind legs. And the ride was spectacular.
With little more than the back end of the boat in the water, this was a full on foam up for the fleet. Miraculously most made it through to the leeward gate in one piece. But there were casualties. A broken mast and several broken rudders took a few out of the running.
At the front it was Nick Craig and Toby Lewis (1500) that were leading the charge around the course once again as they delivered yet another uncontested bullet. Behind them Hamish Gledhill and Andy Dawson (1407) secured second with Robert Espery and Richard McCullough (1006) in third.
The boisterous conditions had spread the fleet out making for a longer than usual pause between races as the race committee waited to re-group. During this period the breeze had dropped to the mid-teens providing a welcome pause in proceedings for teams to get their breath back. The Cockerills were even seen having sandwiches, it was lunchtime after all.
But as the first of several rain squalls swept down the loch the breeze built as if someone had opened a giant door upwind of the course. The white caps were back as was the steep, boat stopping chop.
The first race of that day had taken a few more casualties and reduced the fleet size for the final race to 27. And as the bulk headed off to the flatter water and potential lift on left hand side of the course close to the shore, conditions were back up in the high twenties during the gusts and occasionally into the thirties.
But as this race unfolded the weather threw a few more banana skins on the course with some big and erratic shifts, strange lulls and some weird inland style gusts that unsettled all those in full upwind hike mode.
But the biggest curve ball of the day was the huge right handed shift that turned the downwind leg into a one sided, reaching gruntfest. Those of us who had ignored any attempt at dieting this season were looking smug as we watched the flyweights forced to sail lower than the layline to the gate and then scramble to lower their kites mid leg. It would be wrong to suggest that the ‘extra mediums’ now believed that after a light week there was indeed a God, but as we revelled in the benefit of size it at least took our minds off the alarming noises that were coming from various parts of the boat as it leapt from wave to wave.
The final lap of the final race saw the wind swing even further and with the fleet so spread out and the downwind legs so quick, the race officer was unable to move marks in time resulting in a one tack beat and white sail reach, for most, to the finish.
Leading the charge were Craig/Lewis (1500) who took another bullet with Espery/McCullough (1006) taking second and Mike Simms and Jack Holden (1488) in third.
When it came to the overall winner of the 2019 UK & Irish National Championships Nick Craig & Toby Lewis’ dominant performance had left them 20 points ahead of the second place team, Robert Espery and Richard McCullough whose performance had also won them the 2019 Irish Nationals. Stephen and Sarah Cockerill took third, winning the tie break with Mike Sims and Jack Holden.
Whatever the result, this was surely the way to end a regatta. A full on and flat out day at the end of a week that had seen a wide range of conditions that had provided an evening’s worth of big stories that went on well into the night – egged on by an incredibly hospitable club that clearly loves the craic.
What a week, what a club.