Duffer’s Diary - A Beginner’s Guide to Racing - The Autumn Series 2009

SYC is encouraging more of us to try racing. I know there are some to whom racing is a rather daunting prospect so, as a newcomer to sailing let alone racing, I thought it might be of interest if I recorded some of my experiences of starting to race. And along the way I could de-mystify some of the esoteric terminology, like DNF and OCS. My gist is that whilst it can be a little confusing at first, racing is actually very accessible, a lot of fun and a great way to develop one’s sailing skills.


I’d like to thank everyone who was involved in running the Autumn Series - I found it hugely enjoyable and it enabled me to keep sailing until just before Christmas. Everyone I met was helpful and encouraging and made me feel most welcome. I’d especially like to mention the safety boat crews, Mike Kinnear - the captain of the Laser fleet - and those wonderful people who bring much joy to all of us: the galley crew.

DNS - Did Not Start

It’s a cold morning in November and its blowing a westerly 4 with very strong gusts forecast. I turn up an hour and a half before the race is due to start but can’t make up my mind whether I can handle the conditions. I hang around looking at people preparing their boats and watching the wind. Or rather, watching the symptoms of the wind - the swaying trees, the choppy water, the sails flapping deafeningly along the sea wall. Is the race tower leaning over?

At the last minute, encouraged by a couple of gung ho laserites, I decide to go for it. [The early birds are now launching their boats.] I change in a flash and start rigging the boat. As I often have before, I forget to insert the sail battens and have to de-rig the sail and start again. [The warning hooter sounds.] Precious seconds are slipping from my grasp, and so is the outhaul and the clew. Repeatedly. With no hookage on either the outhaul line or the clew strap (clew strap: in my case this is simply a narrow and strangely slippery piece of cordage which would seem to not quite be long enough) I flail around for some minutes. [All the other lasers are in the water.] I start to panic. [All the other lasers are now crossing the starting line.] I de-rig the sail again and retire to the clubhouse for a bacon sandwich and a coffee. Delicious.

RESULT: I score 6 points for a DNS. LESSONS LEARNT: Hedge your bets - assume you will be sailing and prepare everything you can well in advance: conditions can change quite suddenly. NOTE TO SELF: I have no idea how the outhaul is rigged. POSITIVES: Extra rigging practice - I have gained a whole week on the learning curve.

OCS - On Course at Start

Although I’m late arriving, a gentle breeze allows me to rig the boat without any clew strap malarkey. I forget to insert the sail battens first time around and - panicking a little - have to re-rig the boat. But still I’m in the water with a few minutes to spare. The wind is southerly which allows me to gently reach away from the shore whilst I lower the daggerboard and and tie on the rudder outhaul. I’m ready to head for the start line so I pull the sheet in a little and start to accelerate and then push the tiller gently away from me. It won’t move. I push harder. It won’t move. Keeping one eye open for catamarans, I look over my shoulder as I push the tiller again. I slowly realise that I’ve inserted the it the wrong way around - it’s going over the traveller where it should go under it and under the traveller where it should go over it. I’m going to have to take the rudder right off and re-insert it.

Even my inexperienced eye immediately recognises this as a recipe for disaster. Looking around I see that one of the safety boats is dead ahead of me. I wave and shout at them. They notice me. Hooters sound, lights flash and as the rest of the Laser fleet charges over the start line behind me, the safety boat holds me safely head to wind. I detach the tiller, insert it correctly but lose valuable minutes trying to get that fiddly pin back in to hold it all secure.

Ignorant of the details of the Racing Rules of Sailing, I assume that if I get behind the starting line and then sail across it all will be well. As I finally cross the line I can see the rest of the fleet rounding the first mark in the distance. Some time later I finish in last place but am quite pleased that I did at least finish, and head for the clubhouse to celebrate with a bacon roll and a cup of coffee. Its only when I get home and check the results that I find out I have been penalised for being On Course at Start.

RESULT:  6 points for an OCS. LESSONS LEARNT: Remain calm whilst rigging under pressure as there is no limit to the mistakes that can be made. NOTE TO SELF: The tiller pin is bent. POSITIVES: Extra rigging practice; finishing the course.

DNF - Did Not Finish

Its a lovely sunny afternoon, though a little cold, with a moderate to fresh breeze piling in over the boat park and roughing up the waters. After losing ground in the devious currants of the Salmon Pool I find myself at the back of the Laser pack. But no matter, I’ve rounded the first mark and with no catamarans in sight I’m running fast across the river towards the far side. Faster and faster. This is more like it. I ignore the way the boat is rolling from side to side and let the mainsail out. And out. The boat wants her head and I keep letting the sheet out until the end of the boom is forward of the mast. The rolling is getting a bit uncomfortable but what the heck: I’m really flying! Weee-heeee!

Suddenly the bow digs in, the boat slews round and - the latest gleeful shout still hanging on my lips - I’m in the water watching my rudder drifting away from me. This has happened before. Running downwind, rolling about a bit, but that time I found myself suddenly in the middle of the catamaran fleet. As half a dozen boats passed either of me I lost control and ended up in the river. That time I blamed it on the turbulence - no wonder they’re called Hurricanes, I thought. This time I was on my own. But not for long. The trusty safety boat is there in a flash. “Is this your hat?” grinned the crew, waving a sodden rag at me. Indeed it is, but I’m more concerned about the rudder. Sudden immersion in cold water always knocks the wind out of me, so we lose precious minutes as I try to communicate about the rudder. They retrieve it and soon the boat (if not the crew) is ship shape again.

I decide the wind is too strong for me and I can’t risk another run, so I head back towards the club and noodle around for a while on the edge of the Salmon Pool where the wind is lighter. The wind hasn’t dropped but my tacking is becoming increasingly sluggish and the idea of a bacon roll is becoming increasingly attractive. Can I really smell bacon from here? Soon I’m struggling to pull my boat up the slipway and a fellow laserite has to lend a hand. Washing down the boat I ponder my level of unfitness, but then I remove the bung and several litres of water gush out.

Over coffee in the clubhouse it’s explained to me that I had fallen foul of the dreaded ‘Japanese Death Roll’, that it’s important not to let the sail get ahead of the mast, and that you can retain control on a run by pulling the sail in.

RESULT:  5 points for a DNF. LESSONS LEARNT: Theoretical understanding of running in stronger winds. NOTE TO SELF: The boat has a leak. POSITIVES: My best race score yet; some really excellent home made cake.

Finishing Last

Catamarans have an almost supernatural ability to appear out of nowhere moving at great speed. These are the juggernauts of the racing world but, unlike the lumbering TIRs that eat my dust on the motorways, they perform like thoroughbreds. Catamarans have an unnaturally long wind shadow. When the sign outside the Swan Inn (Swan Inn...and swan out again) in Lympstone suddenly backs violently to windward, patrons exchange knowing looks. “Starcross cats’re out, “ someone will mutter. “Aye, the cats,” comes the murmured reply from all corners. And then there’s the Vortex of Doom. You’re nurdling along with the next mark in sight, sailing very tidily, thankyou, when before you know it you’re in the middle of the cat fleet. You’re so shocked you wobble on the tiller. There’s a cat on every quarter, and they’re racing with intense concentration towards buoy 31. How will they all fit round it? you wonder, imagining a pile-up ahead. As you start to slew around in their wakes it dawns on you that you’re the one in danger of piling up. The wind is swirling around fit to raise a tornado and your boat is starting to spin. Get the VHF out now and call the safety boats - you are caught in...The Vortex of Doom!

It turned out to be the last race of the series as the following week the wind didn’t show up. My leaky boat had gradually slowed through the race and as I headed to the windward mark for the last time the fleet was heading in to shore behind me. I was way back in last position but sailing steadily. Only my second actual finish of the series was within my grasp. It was the end of a lovely autumn afternoon, it was beautifully peaceful and the river was a picture. It was perfect. Perfect conditions for a catamaran to pounce. It was no more than a dozen lengths away when I first saw it and it was on a glancing collision course, coming in fast off my port bow. As I was on a starboard tack I immediately hailed them, shouting “Section A Rule 10”. The crew turned to the helm but whatever was said it was too late. With a shuddering crunch the cat’s port hull bow caught me on the gunwale a foot (30cm) from the stern. In doing so it had threaded itself through the sheet. I dived over and fumbled it clear before the cat should take off again and drag me over. “Are you OK?” enquired the helm nervously. I was, and the cat disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived.

Later in the clubhouse, I treated myself to a bacon roll (for the shock) and tried to identify the anxious faces I had seen staring at me in disbelief moments before the impact - disbelief, probably, that a laser could be bumbling along so slowly - but to no avail.

RESULT:  A measly 12 points for actually finishing the race. LESSONS LEARNT: Catamarans: I can run but I can’t hide. NOTE TO SELF: The boat still has a leak. And a hole (allright, a dent in the gel coat). POSITIVES: Survival.