24th January – Steve Nicholson Trophy.
The Winter sailing circuit is an acquired taste. If you enjoy 5am starts, driving 3 hours each way in darkness, encountering overnight road closures and diversions, this is the life for you. If you're mad enough to bring a boat and spend your days freezing on the water , so much the better.
Today my travelling companions are my chain-smoking brother and sleepy nephew. We're in Jon's van – Jack is asleep in the back, Jon is driving. Grateful as I am for not having to drive, the van isn't a comfortable ride. Every 15 minutes Jon lights up and opens the driver's window. I don't know why he bothers to open the window. The temperature plummets to near freezing and all his assorted crap blows around inside the cab. And the smoke still hits me in the face.
After a 30 minute detour around the villages of Oxfordshire due to the closure of the A34, we finally arrive at Northampton Sailing Club. Nestled in the countryside just outside Northampton, we are greeted with bright sunshine and a moderate breeze blowing across the reservoir – better than the forecast, at least.
Jack is the only Finn here today, but there are about a dozen RS300's in a single-handed fleet of nearly 90 boats. The reservoir isn't very big and the breeze means we have a very small course to play on. To say it's busy out here is an understatement. There's an International Canoe. The skipper bails out early in race 1 and goes home, complaining bitterly about how the rest of us ruined his race. I think he's overly grumpy but he does have a point.
We head out for race 1. Leaving the shelter of the clubhouse the wind starts to increase and the gusts are very sharp. By the time I reach the start I'm feeling wobbly and nervous. The boat feels twitchy today and there are so many boats around I'm worried about colliding with someone. Telling myself to man up, I find a gap near the pin end of a crowded line and manage to get away in the front row. There's an RS600 ahead of me but not much scope for tacking away on port so I go hard left on the 1st beat. Nearing the lay-line I tack and head back into the fleet on port. The approach to the windward mark is stressful with boats all around and a very shifty breeze near the shore. I manage to tack into a gap and round the mark reasonably well placed – inside the top 20 at least.
A short reach on starboard then we gybe away onto the dreaded run. I stay low, looking for clear air as the wind increases...and increases. A sharp gust hits and the boat rolls to windward, burying her bow. Thinking a capsize is inevitable I throw myself across the boat, putting the helm down. We spin up to windward. The capsize is avoided. Shaken, I finally tack back and continue down to the leeward mark.
The promising start is forgotten as at least 10 boats went past, including Jack, while I was pratting about. Every mark rounding is a scrum. I stay outside, sailing much further than I should and sitting in dirty air most of the time.
Four laps later and finally I reach the finish. Battered and depressed I head ashore. Surely I can't sail worse than this?
Yes I can. Race 2.
I'm 30 seconds adrift at the start and following the fleet. The wind has eased slightly and there are no wobbly moments but there are also no gaps and no passing opportunities. I'm nearer the back of the fleet than the front and challenging nobody. Jack had a great race, finishing 20th and 55th overall, even counting his retirement in the 1st race.
The RS300 fleet did well with 3 boats in the top 10. Your author finished 61st. I've forgotten how to race. It's a long drive home. At least I didn't have to drive.