Spectator Paul Sheard 2011
Spectator: Paul Sheard (2011)
Posted 23rd June 2011
Saturday 4th June
Three Rivers Race: the view from Thurne Mouth
The sea breeze was gradually strengthening as the sun rose in the late morning sky. Just up river, the guard boat and rescue tender were about to deploy their second stern mud weight to keep them well tucked into the reeds, giving the most room possible for the racing manoeuvres that were soon to follow; for this was Thurne Mouth, and the race that was about to start way back at Horning was the Three Rivers, a fifty mile open battle on the Northern Rivers between one hundred and twenty five competitors; already the ominous lines of wind squalls from the northeast were etching their dark patterns across the open water, a portend of lively action over the course of the next twenty four hours of the race’s duration.
I have been messing about in boats for most of my life, the majority of which has involved sea-going sailing vessels of one form or another - ranging from being rescued from a yacht in distress on the Canadian Grand Banks the tender age of twenty, to leisurely East Coast ‘swatchway-pottering’ in a robust Northshore-designed Fisher, as the years gradually took their inevitable toll on athletic endeavours. Last autumn, Mary and I bought our first Broads boat, a lovely old but weather beaten Broom ‘Skipper’ which we are gradually smartening up between cruises. The Three Rivers Race is clearly the major competitive event in the Broads calendar and we were determined to see it. Consequently, we had begun an extended June cruise to incorporate this classic Broads event into the first few days of our break.
Our decision to moor at Thurne Mouth to watch the proceedings had been governed primarily by the weather. The original idea of Ant Mouth – among the reeds – had been dropped when northerlies began to be forecast. The bottom of the high pressure was being squeezed by Atlantic lows and the closing isobars meant increasing strength. Moored, like sitting ducks, to leeward in a narrow confluence was now a non-starter. Anyway, the rivers were more open here, meaning faster, more exciting sailing to watch and enjoy in four different directions.
The previous Thursday evening – a few hours after leaving our moorings at Acle - had seen us shoot the bridge at Wroxham for the first time. It had given us a taste of what challenges lay ahead for the racing fleet two days later, when they were faced with the daunting challenge at Potter Heigham. The cross-wind and the awkward bends in the river at the ancient crossing here at Wroxham had meant that I had not noticed a friendly sister ship, with crew on deck, moored to starboard just before the bridge. Mary had waved with vigour and had hoped that our prone flag had been recognised as it lay resting, attached to the lowered mast; our name would have been obscured by the lowered wheelhouse sides. For me, lining up the parallax of the medieval arch ends meant that side glances of acknowledgement at that critical point were out of the question. Getting through at our first attempt – unscathed - was a relief.
Eventually arriving at Coltishall, it was obvious that it was a very popular mooring – even more so in the balmy evening light; in fact, its popularity, nearing the end of the busy half-term week, meant that we barely found room to moor ourselves. We squeezed into the last gap available opposite the benches on the grass in front of the Rising Sun. The atmosphere was relaxed; so relaxed that one woman was using a mooring post as a foot rest and we had to politely ask her to remove it so that we could moor up properly! The aroma of barbeques wafted up from the common; holiday mood prevailed. It was impossible not to be caught up in it. No doubt many here would, like us, soon be watching the weekend race.
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The next day we cruised back down the Bure. Racing fever must have been in the air. There were yachts of all kinds tacking all over the place! I remember one guy in particular who was making emphatic signs to the effect that I should go behind him as he crossed the river. I tried to convey that I understood what he was on about, but he must have thought I was a halfwit the way he kept reinforcing the message. Ironically he was making himself look like one by his inability to acknowledge any form of communication from me. I slowed right down before he had an attack of apoplexy. Then he missed his tack completely and became enmeshed in the reeds, so that I had no choice but to cross his bows, anyway! On another occasion, a yachtsman was in the process of tacking across my quarter and started manically gesticulating for me to speed up so that he could extend his course. We were near Horning and travelling slowly as is appropriate in that reach. Since the chap was neither racing nor in an emergency, I chose not to speed up. Was I really expected to accelerate in a low speed area just so that he could add another twelve feet or so to his tack?
During the afternoon, as we approached our chosen race-watching position at the staithe at Thurne Mouth, the wind was rising noticeably. I wanted to be close to the northern end for the best view possible of the two rivers. There was a gap, but it was near impossible to get a decent run up with enough power to prevent being blown off before a mooring line could be secured. Fortunately help was at hand from the next boat, which was preparing to leave; this time, unlike our recent experience at Beccles, the help was welcome and constructive. We were soon secure. Presently, the vacancy left by the departing boat attracted a large steel cruiser with a teenage family aboard. Like us, he was having difficulties getting alongside. I made myself available on the river bank as he made a run against the wind. I offered to take the bow line from the daughter, who seemed more intent on trying to ‘lasso’ the mooring post - but to no avail. They started to drift away from the bank and I just stood there, bewildered by their attitude. Suddenly, when the boat was eight or nine feet from the quay heading, the son, who had the stern line, made a desperate leap for it and only just made the huge gap. Immediately, his sister threw him the bow line and he managed to take a turn before the full weight of the wind pressure on the heavy hull took effect. I walked away, bemused. What an elegant boat - but what an inelegant way to moor!
Obviously, ‘family pride’ had made them too stubborn to accept help when it was freely offered in extenuating circumstances! Later, I made a comment to the skipper [father] and he freely admitted that his son’s action had been foolhardy. If he had missed the quay heading and fallen on to it, hitting his head in the process, he could have entered the water unconscious. It could so easily have been curtains for him. Sometimes, if the circumstances dictate and the offer is of value, there is no shame in accepting help, however much we may wish to be self-reliant and independent. It’s all part of the subtle art of boatmanship: the ability to make the safe and rational decision, putting such considerations as pride and vanity firmly to the back of our minds. Perhaps it was the wind that prompted the family’s irrationality: that indefinable challenge to beat whatever nature can throw at us; the desire to win.
This desire to win, the product of our competitive human nature, is why we race. When conditions are hard, like they were on the day of the Three Rivers event, this desire can possible get the better of us and encourage us to take those extra risks that put ourselves and our equipment in jeopardy. It’s a great temptation, the consequences of which can prove costly. In a life time afloat, it’s something that I’ve also experienced on occasion. Once, off the coast of Penzance one stormy night over thirty years ago, I was carrying too much sail. I knew it, but at two in the morning, with the phosphorescence carving a spectacular trail astern and the spray breaking over the boat, I was having fun. Besides, the adrenaline rush was keeping me awake. A thunder squall hit, we seemed to move sideways for an instant – and then the mast fell to leeway and all hell broke loose. The hastily awoken crew was only a foot away from paying off the jib; too late; just too late. The lesson is obvious: we might win against our peers, but we can never win against nature; against the power of the elements you can only draw - or lose with a good grace. I certainly learnt that lesson the hard way on that stormy August night way back thirty years ago....
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The race had started. The atmosphere at Horning must have been electric! Although essentially a cruising sailor at heart, I’ve done my fair share of club racing in the past and know how that atmosphere can get to you as the racing fleet struggles for order in the opening stages. I scanned the windswept reeds to the west with the binoculars, searching for signs of the leaders. It must have been blowing at least five by this time. Beside me I had my old faithful pocket camera: not exactly exhibition quality photographic equipment but still a good provider of a lot of fun on the computer at later dates – and as an aide memoir when old events become distant as they recede into the mind. Then, in the distance, a fully battened sail appeared slanting its way through the reeds: sail number 102, a Norfolk Punt, named Comet - and streaking like a comet! It skilfully tacked along the far bank – the shortest course to sail – before shooting down to Potter Heigham. A sharp, strained, guttural yell across to the guard boat announcing his race number and he was gone. Just a distant silhouette against the Thurne Windmill lingered for a while across the marshes. It wasn’t long before the next boat, an X1 dinghy, flashed into view. He had a different tactic, heading straight down to Acle and beyond. The action had begun!
Along the line of boats at the staithe there was the odd folding chair being put up where there was a gap between the moored hulls. Programmes were being studied and thermos flasks were being undone. Since the course could be done in any order, depending on tide and wind tactics as interpreted by each crew, and with so many different types of yachts involved – all of varying speeds and performance going in all directions – there was bound to be considerable spectator interest. Then, of course, there were the bridges: challenging ‘pit stops’ that could make or break positions on this Norfolk Broads ‘grand prix’ circuit! That was a whole different spectator sport in itself; perhaps another year for that. Right now I was more interested in the sailing performance of the yachts themselves in the relatively exposed waters around Thurne and down towards Acle.
As the leading boats started to appear in ever more frequent numbers, some going north to Potter Heigham, others south towards the Stokesby mark, it occurred to me that it seemed to make sense to get the long legs out of the way first, before tackling the more confined Fleet Dyke and Ant parts of the course once the chaos of a bunched fleet had thinned out. Apparently, judging from the subsequent photographic evidence of others, this tactic wasn’t shared by everyone. Nor, apparently, was the positioning of the South Walsham mark; having been taken out of the relatively safe expanse of the broad itself, it was placed close to the end of Fleet Dyke in a seemingly hazardous position near the staithe! It was then moved during the race itself to a less hazardous position further up the dyke. Talk about moving the goal posts! I bet a few competitors had something to say about that!
Next to round into the mouth of the Thurne was the plucky Wayfarer, ‘Catspaw’, which was to ultimately come second on corrected time, closely followed by, the Star, ‘The Swedish Job’, an Olympic class yacht, which unfortunately, like many other noble contenders, had to retire later.
As more yachts came into view, it was clear that dogfights were starting to develop. More Norfolk Punts - one of the fastest hull designs on the Broads – appeared, in the shape of ‘Wildgoose,’ last year’s winner, closely chased by its sister, ‘Snark’, the eventual fastest competitor on elapsed time, as they both high-tailed it down the Bure. Then came the first of the fleet of mighty Thames A Raters, ‘Lady Jane’, with their tall willowy masts and state-of-the-art computer generated sail design that carried a devastatingly severe handicap of minus 25%! Their towering high aspect sails would experience wind pressures above the trees and bushes that most of the racers would never know about. Unfortunately, like many of her sister ships, she had to retire as gear failure took its toll on these magnificent racing machines. Only two finished, ‘Tara’ and ‘Kingfisher’, and of those two, ‘Kingfisher’ was the fastest, coming third on elapsed time but only managing a lowly fortieth once her time had been corrected for handicap.
Another exciting duel took place between the Yeoman, ‘Fire Opal’, a fairly modern design, and ‘Ghost’, a Yare & Bure One Design with long traditions on the Norfolk Broads. The Yeoman was just in the lead as they came out of the Bure, but as they tacked across the river mouth the lead changed again as they sped up the Thurne. With both yachts on similar handicaps, only fourteen minutes were eventually to separate them after nearly ten hours of racing! Even closer was the result between ‘Ghost’ and her sister, ‘Willowherb’. Although separated on the various legs of the course for most of the time, the two yachts eventually finished on elapsed time only twenty two seconds apart!
The first of the River Cruisers to show was, ‘Whisper’, as it freed off down the Bure at speed. With a fairly stiff handicap for a river cruiser - of just +1% - it still managed to finish the race fifth on elapsed time and seventh on handicap, picking up two trophies for its success.
What was to be the eventual winner on corrected time was the thirty-fourth yacht to reach Thurne Mouth, the Yare & Bure designed ‘Fox’ - a success for traditional style against contemporary design. As she came into view, ‘Fox’ was involved in a group of three fighting for position; the other two being the Wayfarer, ‘Haven’t a Clue’ and the Yeoman, ‘Thistle Doo’. The Yeoman lost ground during the rest of the race but ‘Fox’ went on to win the race on corrected time, while the Wayfarer eventually came in third, twenty two minutes behind her faster sister, ‘Catspaw’, who was at that time already on her way up to Potter Heigham.
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A few minutes later, the Yeoman, ‘Brandy Bottle’ came through to turn up the Thurne after overtaking ‘Rebel Breeze’ on the bend. ‘Brandy Bottle’ was to go on to become the fastest Yeoman in the race, finishing fifth on corrected time. Soon after this, another Rebel to reach the river confluence, ‘Rebel H’ - destined to be the fastest of the Rebel class in the race - almost came to grief when a hire yacht suddenly appeared in front of her on a dead run travelling at speed down the Thurne. Fortunately, both yachts went sharply into wind to slow their speed down and avoid what could possibly have been a 15mph pile up with potentially dire consequences.
Hot on her heels came the Yare & Bure one design, ‘Chalkhill Blue’, which was to finish second fastest in her class, behind ‘Fox’, and fourth on corrected time, just over a minute behind the Wayfarer, ‘Haven’t a Clue’ in third.
It seemed no time at all before the X1 dinghy came racing back from Acle, followed quickly by the Norfolk Punts, ‘Snark’ and ‘Wildgoose’, still locked in their speed duel as they tacked back up into the fresh northeast sea breeze. By now it had become busy two-way – at times even three way – traffic in the river confluence! The wind had strengthened markedly and some of the River Cruisers class, many carrying wind-grabbing topsails, looked desperately over-canvassed in the puffs. It seemed only a matter of time before gear failures would start to decimate the fleet.
Among the more unusual contestants was a three-masted lugsail, the dinghy, ‘Aethelfleda’. She hove into view looking gloriously out of place among the more streamlined hulls. However, with a 23% handicap she was to finish a creditable fifty on corrected time. Even better, the little Norfolk One Design, ‘Minnie’, with a handicap of 25%, finished ninth on corrected time!
Soon the River Cruiser ‘Whisper’ came roaring back northwards, heeling wildly under its full main and topsail, just before the Norfolk Punt, ‘Comet’, came into view travelling in the opposite direction on her return from Hickling Broad. Not long afterwards, ‘Catspaw’, the leading Wayfarer on the day, followed.
Around mid-afternoon came one of the main casualties of the day: Hire Cruiser, ‘America’ limped past the guard boat with half her mast missing: the elements had beaten her. The wind had definitely had the last word. Many of the late arrivals at Thurne Mouth were soon to retire. Either the wind sapped their strength to go on or they succumbed to gear failure or boat damage.
Passing in opposing directions on their respective second legs were the River Cruiser, ‘Rushmere’, on course to be second in her class, and the tall Thames A Raters, ‘Tara’ and ‘Kingfisher’. Tara was later to be well overhauled by her sister, probably because she was carrying a cut-down mainsail. However, since the other four A Raters were forced to retire, perhaps the sail reduction in those difficult, squally conditions was a prudent choice that enabled, at the very least, a damage-free race survival.
The Yeoman, ‘Fire Opal’, having now shaken off its previous adversary, the Yare & Bure design, ‘Ghost’, was now gunning for its sister yacht, ‘Two C’Sons’. They shot past on their second bridge leg, this time on the fast reach to Acle. The final positions of these two class-identical yachts were 10th and 8th respectively, with only eight minutes separating them after a nine-and-a-half-hour-long race. With them were two Wayfarers battling for supremacy, ‘Water Rail’ and ‘Haven’t a Clue’. ‘Haven’t a Clue’ was just about to overtake her class rival, who she had done well to catch up, mainly because they had courageously set a spinnaker in the testing conditions. However, it was clear from the way the boat was skittishly moving as it passed us, that the crew were barely in control – and moments later, as she drew level with ‘Water Rail’, she was over! However, she later recovered, to subsequently beat ‘Water Rail’ on her way to taking third place in the final race order.
By this time it was well past four. The action had thinned down and the spectators in their folding chairs along the bank had started to pack up. It was also time for us to go if we were to catch the tide at Great Yarmouth and make Burgh for the night. We would be passing returning boats on our way down past Acle and Stokesby, so the fun wasn’t entirely over for the day. One of our last sightings at Thurne Mouth staithe was the sleek and shiny purple Thames A Rater, ‘Polar Explorer’ being towed in by the rescue boat, sails down and stowed with the crew looking dejected and tired. It must have been a real downer for them after all the preparation and effort needed for the event.
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With the lengthening shadows, the sea breeze was losing its strength, although there was still plenty of wind to contend with. As we headed east we passed some lovely River Cruisers: ‘Beth’, looking magnificent with her tanned sails and apparently unscathed after some contact earlier in the race in fleet Dyke, ‘Henrietta’, storming down the Bure, and later, ’Bewitched‘, just after she had made her final turn for home. Then there was the Norfolk Punt, ‘Comet’ - first boat to Thurne Mouth – the duelling Yeomans, ‘Two C’Sons’, and ‘Fire Opal’, and the two mighty Thames A Raters still left standing, ‘Tara’ and ‘Kingfisher’. The only flying fifteen in the race, ‘Fighting Fit’, was flying her multi-coloured spinnaker as she flew past us towards Acle, as did the fastest Yeoman on the day, ‘Brandy Bottle’, with her bright green spinnaker setting well in the late afternoon sunlight. We had now seen some of these racers for up to three times that day and were beginning to feel some affection for them as we watched their progress. But the yachts that I had a real soft spot for were the Wayfarers. The class has real pedigree. We passed two before the race end: ’Catspaw’, before we’d reached the bridge, and then, ‘Haven’t a Clue’ when almost opposite our mooring at Acle Dyke.; these were the boats that were to come second and third respectively on final corrected time.
So, what’s so special about the Wayfarer? Well, in the early sixties a guy called Frank Dye sailed a Wayfarer from Scotland to Iceland and then again from Scotland to Norway, surviving a force nine storm and four capsizes; an open boat in the north Atlantic. Says a lot for the man; says a lot for the boat. My first taste of high speed planning in a racing dinghy was in a Wayfarer. At the time most sailing schools were using them because of their reputation, built up in no small measure by the legendary Frank Dye, himself. It was on Banbury Reservoir in Walthamstow, the wind was blowing a proper hooley and I was single handed with heavily reefed main only – no jib: a manageable rig for a relatively inexperienced single-hander sailing in windy conditions. I’d always wanted to plane a dinghy at speed. I’d seen it done a few years earlier down at Poole Harbour when lying gale-bound at anchor in a chartered sloop while on the family holiday. Now I was about to try for myself. I tacked up wind, slowly clawing my way to the end of the reservoir from which to make my ‘run’. It took ages and I thought I’d be called in at any minute. I made it and turned her onto a very broad reach – the fastest point in sailing. I carefully allowed the sail to fill and took off. It was tremendous; a real white knuckle ride. The bows reared up like a stallion and plumes of water cascaded up on either side of the stem head. I remember shouting at the top of my voice as the fear and pleasure of the adrenaline surge welled up inside me in equal measure. It seemed to last forever. It was like flying. Then the murky grey concrete wall of the opposite side of the reservoir came into view through the spray and I carefully easer her round into the wind to slow down. It had been a sensational experience even though it had been just a taste; those guys in their various Wayfarers, Thames A Raters, Norfolk Punts and Flying Fifteens et al would all have had more than a taste of it at some time or another – maybe even during some of the heavier gusts of the race itself.
We passed the Stokesby racing mark and the world suddenly seemed strangely empty. Yes, we had experienced a few close encounters on our run from Thurne Mouth. That’s in the nature of the ‘game’ when there are cruisers and racers about. Some of the hire boats had simply stopped in their tracks when confronted with the armada bearing down on them in the Bure. We’d managed to second guess some of the racing yacht manoeuvres - in the interests of safety – and were thanked a few times for our strategic course changing; so that must have gone ok. In the race itself, the final tally would be forty three retirements – over half as many as actually finished; a tough race, indeed! Tough on the boats too; repairs are not cheap - and there would be many to come out of the day’s events. As for tactics, the spectator sport of shooting the bridges is obviously a major attraction of the race, as is the huge competitor advantage of cutting elapsed time by accomplishing this while on the move – and not stopping; but that’s a whole new skill set in itself! It certainly helped some of the top placed crews.
As we came alongside at Burgh with wind over tide I realised that the stern was being blown in. That meant that the wind had backed round to the north – or even west of north. That would be a significant change for those latecomers at Acle. As the sun was setting over the marshes and the air turned chilly we wondered how many yachts were still out there on the three rivers; how many would be sailing through the night. Many would certainly be expecting that eventuality - but it would still require a determination - and real dedication - just to see it through in such challenging conditions....
But then, perhaps we should all know by now that Mother Nature can be a damn hard task master when she wants to be!
Paul Sheard June 2011
All photographs in this report are by Paul Sheard
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