It's all about
finding the calm
in the chaos
Image "Vashti at dawn"
SUMMER 2017, Aged 32 and a bit
As I sit in the luxurious confines of one of Britain's most prestigious yacht clubs, on the southern banks of the River Orwell, I reflect upon a mornings racing.
Of course it's not often that I find myself in any kind of "establishment" but on this occasion the opportunity appealed more than the venue or after party. Therefore I find myself at the Royal Harwich Yacht Club having been drafted in for race crew on the Sunday of their annual regatta, on a very special classic yacht that I've spent over 20 years learning to drive.
I arrive on deck and without words needing to be exchanged, through the companionway I swap wet weather gear for a stiff fresh coffee, black with no sugar and with a quarter of a cup of freeboard. This is a Vashti brew straight from the skipper. It's 0830 and this 1958 Alan Buchannan racing yacht has a start time of 0930 down the river at Pin Mill.
Vashti, famed for being the prototype to her class and one of the first masthead sloops in the UK was competitive in her day, however in the year 2018 carbon fibre plays a strong hand to a 37ft yacht built wholly out of Burmese Teak. I first sailed Vashti aged 11 and at the time remember her distinctive dinghy like feel and the smell of baked varnish. 22 years later she smells the same and feels even smaller and more handy.
With Paul at the helm I go forward of the mast and in a heartbeat the mainsail is set and trimmed. With six minutes to the start I'm back in the cockpit endlessly rolling out the oversized Genoa and Vashti's turbo kicks in. The race clock ticks on, we head south across the river and tack onto starboard, Vashti is on a beam reach and the wind is 15knots and squally. A slight luff up and bear away and we're making our final run at -02:45. We cross the start line at 7.6 knots boatspeed, 10 seconds late. Acceptable for a club race!
Our main competition is a lightweight racing boat around 24ft in length with carbon fibre sails and 7 persons on board, while they grapple with an out of control spinnaker and slide downwind we hold up on the south bank driving Vashti hard. As we round collimer I do my best to haul up Vashti's mainsail before grinding the 3 speed size 75 bronze winch on the leeward side, until the boat sounds like she's had enough. Going fully upwind we're at 60 degrees heel and pointing nowhere near our windward turning mark, the illusive Pye End.
A continuous beat out of Harwich harbour ensues and with the wind building to a shade over 20 knots, we're pinching against a flood tide to make the long tracks as long as possible, at the cost of boatspeed, instead of reefing the never ending headsail. The usual bedlam makes itself known in Vashti's long slender cabin space and the cabin sole becomes the last port of call for mugs, jumpers, bedding, pants, cushions, a pair of binoculars and a small item of clothing that I'm unfamiliar with. These items happily tack themselves across the cabin floor safe in the knowledge that if they've survived the journey this far, they've got no further south to travel.
Eventually we spot our windward mark and round pye end for a bear away, it's a dead run back into the harbour and the usual death roll flirts with us as we run goose winged with no preventers or pole. It's a comfortable motion past what we call "Cape Horn" and into the harbour. As the asymmetric spinnaker was destroyed a few weeks previous, it's Genoa versus main and a stable predictable roll.
Heading downwind towards Felixstowe it's time to come up to Shotley, and a big "bang!" heard from Harwich, Felixstowe and Shotley alerts everyone that we've just gybed Vashti's mainsail fully powered up. Now, grinding in the sails to come up onto the reach we're dabbling between 7 and 8 knots of hull speed throughout the localised squalls. Vashti is singing, I'm trimming the Genoa to the tell tails every few seconds on one of the big winches and we maintain a steady 7.5 knots all the way to Collimer which arrives and leaves at an alarming pace.
A perpetual moment continues between men and yacht, while Paul happily tweaks his helm, focused on the prize, I am fixated on driving the rig through minor adjustments like a PlayStation controller in a young kids hand. I feel myself at one with Vashti, like horse and rider at the highest level. For a while we're working as one team of three, boat and two men, but in our own individual worlds, I wonder in hindsight how many years it takes for this harmony to naturally form amongst a crew and such a highly tuned boat.
To add insult to the gods, the wind is building and around collimer we're coming upwind into Vashti's most favourable point of sail. The winch handle comes out again and as Paul drops the helm, I wind her up to a close reach and Vashti's bow wave spray is clearly visible from the cockpit. Pushing 8 knots and more at times we're driving hard and every boat in the river passes close by for a photo of this teak classic racer doing we she does best. Paul and I look at each other and with no words required we both maintain the "8 knot grin".
As we cross the finish line there's a blast and a cheer from shore and happy in the knowledge that we've broken nothing, we drift under poles up the orwell before heading in to the royal harwich yacht club. Corrected time gives us an honourable second place and I take a moment to think of all those people relaxing at home on a Sunday afternoon. As healthy as this may be for ones wellbeing on the spiritual day of the week, for me nothing beats a Sunday's racing on a boat like Vashti. The boat that taught me to race and will always hold a place in my soul.
Clive Robertson, sailing all sorts since 1990.
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