Spectator Paul Sheard (2012)
Spectator: Paul Sheard (2012)
Posted 25th June 2012
Under the Gun
Start of the Three Rivers Race 2012
I stopped the car beneath the swaying trees in the shelter that they afforded to the parking area located just outside South Walsham village, a stone’s throw from the broad itself. As the expanse of choppy water came into view on our short walk down towards Fleet Dyke, it became evident that something was wrong. It was now twelve-fifteen on Saturday 9th June – the day of the 2012 Three Rivers Race – and the melee we were expecting at this stage in the proceedings, as the fleet rounded the marker, was not there; nothing, except the wild wind and disturbed water.
Mary made a quick scan of twitter on her mobile – and all was made clear: a five hour delay! Clearly, the organisers were mindful of the previous year and the brisk nor’easter that had caused some gear failure amongst the fleet; with gusts of up to 30knots, they weren’t taking any chances this year!
Last year we had taken a grandstand view of the race from a Thurne Mouth mooring position – but this year we had intended to travel by car to the various points of interest/excitement along the length of the course. That was now looking increasingly unlikely. We rather aimlessly drove around for a bit before parking at Womak to forlornly munch our picnic lunch while the car was periodically rocked by the occasional extra-strong gust from across the water. The hours were ticking by and we had to be back home in Clacton-on-Sea that evening....
Apparently the crowds down at the start by the Horning Sailing Club were thinner than in previous years – and it wasn’t difficult to see why. A chill breeze was sweeping up the reach towards the bend in the river that marks the starting line and people around us standing on the grassy bank just down river from the clubhouse - many dressed, like ourselves, in fairly summery gear - were complaining of the cold. To cap it all, the race had now been postponed an extra hour!
Across the narrow dyke that separated us from the bustle of activity around the sailing club premises, chatter about the all-important subject of ‘the weather’, and the tactics required to deal with it, that was emanating from the encircling throng of anxious yachtsmen, competed with the babble from flocks of agitated local geese waddling at our feet; some might argue that the geese were the more knowledgeable. Only the wind knew the real answer – and it wasn’t giving much away.
As if on cue, the dismasted sailing cruiser White Wings, first casualty of the day, drifted past the pre-race proceedings as eerily as Banquo’s ghost: a portent of what disasters might befall those who failed to respect the power of the elements....
As the start of the racing programme drew ever closer and last minute adjustments were completed, crews left the mooring area around the club house, some under power, some quanting and others paddling their way up river into the wind.
Suddenly, the voice of the commentator atop the flat roof of the clubhouse, crackled out across the windswept water. As the Wayfarers jockeyed for pole position for the first of the class divisional line-ups, we were informed about the starting gun arrangements, the hire cruisers were informed about keeping to the right bank – trying, if it were possible, to become ‘part of it’ – and the spectators were informed about the safety aspects of reefing and waiting for the wind to moderate.
After all, the Fastnet this isn’t. This is a family race, with young and old competing in a vast spectrum of boats which represent the pride and joy of many a proud owner. Handicap corrections apart, fun - or friendly rivalry - is the primary name of the game, here.
Of course, there are those who treat it with a deadly seriousness, like Chris Bunn, who in skippering this year’s entry, the river cruiser ‘Moonshadow’, picked up three trophies for a courageous second place to an all-powerful Thames A-Rater racing machine, to go with the five he collected last year for coming first in the plucky little Yare& Bure white boat, ‘Fox’.
At five, the starting gun boomed from the signalling balcony of the sailing club. With gun smoke hanging briefly in the breezy air, the Wayfarers were off, vanishing round the ‘Swan bend’ at speed in the favourable tail wind.
At intervals over the next hour or so class after class was dispatched with precision timing from the synchronicity of the commentator and the starting gun.
When the White Boats were called, we were treated to a near-perfect display of starting tactics as the whole fleet sped over the line almost in unison. Even the commentator, overlooking the event, was moved to make a praiseworthy comment. It was grace under sail: those guys certainly knew a thing or two about kicking canvas!
One of the high points was when the Thames A-Raters took to the water, like three sparring gladiators with their impossibly high aspect sails and saucer-like hull shapes sliding effortlessly across the water like skimming stones.
Like a horse bolting before the off, ‘Lady Jane’, the eventual winner, charged off down river as the five minute gun blast played havoc with her crew’s nervous energy. As she slithered back as dignified as she could, at least the commentator showed some good-natured tact by announcing words to the effect that she has just gone down to ‘inspect the state of the course’....
Reading from their subsequent victory report for ‘Yachts and Yachting’ their race seems more like some bizarre nature trail: between comments about surviving ‘interesting gybes’ and managing to pass the point of a ‘spectacular capsize the previous year’ unscathed, the skipper recounts glimpsing two marsh harriers before they reached the Ant, hearing the sound of a cuckoo in Candle Dyke, sighting a bittern ‘in the distance’ on their way out of Duck Broad and passing an otter diving at Thurne Mouth! Some race....
They owe their success to some canny tide planning. Gambling on a dying wind, which happened, they high tailed it to Acle first – against the tide – so that the beat back from Potter Heigham in weakening winds would be with the tide – with the final leg to Horning in a weaker ebb than that experienced by those boats returning via Acle.
As the starting gun boomed out one of its last salvos of the day, the river cruisers were off. Most of these fine yachts were well into their prime with handicaps commensurate with their classic design and pedigree. They made a fine sight as they loosened their booms past the Horning pubs and boatyards, with more than a hint of nostalgia in the air. The ago old ‘conflict’ between power and sail was graphically demonstrated as ‘Wandering Rose’ struggled to pass a hire cruiser that was positioned awkwardly - more towards the middle of the river than towards the right hand bank, as instructed. The air resonated with the booming irate voice of the skipper in phraseology that, fortunately, passed the standards expected of the pre-watershed viewing bank-side crowds.
As the last of the topsails disappeared, it was time to make our exit. The warm car beckoned after the chill of standing on the river bank for over an hour. Much to our regret, the sun was to reappear later that evening. It’s a pity that we couldn’t have stayed to see the excitement of the late evening bridge-shooting at Potter Heigham. Judging from the low sun against the dark clouds as we drove south, away from Norfolk and towards the Thames estuary, the photographic opportunities back in Broadland must have been pure ‘point and shoot’ joy to any half-decent photography enthusiast.
Perhaps we should consider moving....
Paul Sheard June 2012
All photographs in this report are by Paul Sheard
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