Duffer's Diary 4 - At Year's End

It isn’t funny any more. Sure, it has its moments, but basically it isn’t funny any more. In fact, I’m close to the point where I’m considering quitting. More experienced sailors may have seen this coming, may have read the signs. I apologise to any of my readers who feel disappointed by this, but a fact is a fact. And the fact is, it isn’t funny any more.

Of course I don’t mean the sailing, I mean Duffer’s Diary. The old adage “once a duffer always a duffer” is probably true. But the flood of self-inflicted disasters has been reduced to a trickle, the state of constant confusion has become an occasional dizzy spell, and that look of endless surprise has weathered into fixed expression of grim foreboding. There are one or two things I might still share after a pint or two in the hope of entertaining my companions, but basically it isn’t funny any more. Sorry.

A year has passed since I entered my first ever dinghy sailing race, recording a DNS after failing to rig my boat in time for the start (I retired to the clubhouse for the first in what was to become a long series of bacon rolls and excellent cakes). I’ve enjoyed most of it enormously and the rest of it I’ve enjoyed in retrospect once some of the basic human parameters - like body temperature, blood sugar levels, coffee consumption and c*g*r*tt* intake - had been restored to normal.

My sailing skills have definitely improved and my comfort zone, with regard to conditions and situations, has definitely expanded. Racing is really good for that and I thoroughly recommend it. My speed through the water is another matter. I’m probably still quicker with a lawn mower than I am at the helm of a Laser sailing dinghy.

It’s been a hectic sailing summer, at times being involved in four racing series at once, and keeping a diary going has been beyond me. So, with the AGM and the Annual Dinner Dance due at any moment, this edition of Duffer’s Diary is more of a summary of my year as a whole.

Begin To Race

Fantastic. This was brilliant. And whilst I have nothing concrete to show for it - in terms of results in Club Series races - I would still say that I learned a lot. More importantly, I enjoyed it a lot.

Sailing with the juniors brought up mixed emotions and consequently demanded a certain amount of grit to get through it all. It’s quite challenging as a 50 year old to discover that these guys are already better than I am. On reflection, it becomes quite depressing. There were days when even cake couldn’t cheer me up (I know, I know). On the other hand, it’s a real gas to sail with them because they have a lot of fun and they make a lot of noise about it and my inner wild child loved that. Lots of respect, guys, and hope to see you soon on Sundays.

I would encourage anyone who is even remotely considering participating in BTR next season to do so. I have one valuable tip about how to participate: it’s all in the preparation. When the new sailing calendar is published, write all the BTR dates in your diary immediately. If you don’t have a 2011 diary go out and buy one immediately you finish reading this edition of Duffer’s Diary. Always check your diary before committing to any social, domestic, romantic or other engagement. If the engagement falls on the day of a BTR session simply say “Sorry, can’t make that, previous arrangement”. Et voila! You will wake up on BTR Saturday mornings to find you have nothing else to do so...why not go sailing?

This invaluable technique also works for club racing, cruising, free sailing etc. In fact I don’t understand why it’s not part of RYA courses like Basic Skills, Day Skipper and so on. Perhaps our Commodore can be induced to mention it next time one of the Association’s officials visits the club.

Trophy Winner

The strangely-named Oddie Aggregate Trophy is awarded to the SYC sailor who starts the most races in a year without winning any prize. (I don’t mean it’s strange that it’s called the Oddy Trophy. It isn’t strange at all as that was the name of EPG Oddy MC who donated the trophy. What I mean is that it’s a strange name. Odd, obviously.)

This year the prize has been won by yours truly and that came as a bit of a shock. I didn’t know there was such a prize but the idea of winning anything (beyond the fancy dress at the Fitting Out Supper, of course) hadn’t occurred to me. I’ve spent the last year focused on one objective really: to finish in any position except last in a Laser Class Club Series Race. But I’m really chuffed to have won something in return for my endeavours.

In an idle moment recently (possibly involving a bacon sandwich) I had wondered about donating a wooden spoon to the trophy cache. It would be known as the Duffer Trophy and would be awarded to the person who scored the most DNFs in a year. It could have a mechanism built into the plinth that causes it to topple over at random intervals whilst positioned on a mantelpiece or shelf. I may not now go ahead with this idea as perhaps it overlaps too much with the already-established Oddy Aggregate.

One thing I shall certainly be lobbying for is the creation of The Golden Whisk Award to be given annually to the baker of the best cake made available in the galley. I would be prepared to sacrifice some of my time to be part of the judging panel, even though I know it’s going to be a difficult task and there could be disagreements. There might be reruns, late nights and a need for refreshment. Nevertheless, someone would have to do it and I’m persuadable.

Anyway, I have been keeping records of my racing “performance” and the award of the Oddy Aggregate Trophy has prompted me to summarise the data. I thought it might serve as a useful example for others who set their sights on this particular prize. Here are the figures.

   All Races  Club Series
 Races 54 38
 Last Position (1) 14 14
 Other position (2) 17 1
 DNF 17 17
 DNS 2 2
 OCS 1 1
 DSQ 3 3
 Capsizes (3) 487 485


(1) I have counted myself as coming in last even when there have been other racers who have scored DNF, DNS etc. There are many ways to score these results (see previous Duffer’s Diaries) and I can hardly claim satisfaction because someone’s race was curtailed by a broken piece of equipment, or because they got a call on their mobile out near buoy 33 to say their wife had just gone into labour, or for whatever reason. No, to exploit such ill luck would be the mark of a cad and a snark and I’m not interested. I’m a trophy winner and I have standards to maintain.

(2) 16 of these 17 positions were achieved during handicap races in the Begin To Race Series and whilst I did once beat another Laser in this series it did not fulfil my criteria of beating another Laser in a Club Series race. No Last Positions were recorded by me in BTR, nor any DNFs etc. The 17th Other Position was achieved in a Club Series race but it was a handicap race and did not involve beating another Laser.

(3) This is a guesstimate figure but now I wish I had actually kept a record. I have a gut feeling that I have become more expert in capsize recovery than I have at any other point of sailing.

There may be those who find my criteria for success (beating another Laser in a Club Series race) a little harsh, a little narrow, a little bit designed to accentuate my self-obsession with my own duffage and to deny any improvement in my sailing skills. An attempt to ensure a self-fulfilling prophecy. My own personal Commodore and sailing muse, Di, has in fact expressed opinions of this nature. And whilst I will happily hold my hands up and admit to a certain unhealthy tendency to enjoy playing the fool, it’s a perspective that ignores the deeply competitive fire that smoulders in my belly. It’s a perspective that glosses over the many sleepless nights spent soul-searching, the endless reading and rereading of relevant books and articles, and the constant, oft-indulged, compulsion to upgrade my cordage.

A Diversion Concerning the “Numbering” of the Laser Sailing Dinghy

Mark Elkington has said on the website that a future version of Race Manager may use sail numbers rather than competitor codes for signing on. This gave rise to a certain amount of speculation regarding the format of sail numbers used on Lasers. Not many non-Laser sailors seem to know this, but, since its become a topical issue, I can reveal to the world at large that its not really a sail number. Its actually a kind of slide rule. The outhaul is the slidey bit and you can then use the numbers marked on the sail as the basis for micro adjustments to the kicking strap. Laserites disagree - sometimes violently - about how the kicking strap scale should be calibrated. Hence the wide variety of scales (i.e. numbers) that you see on Laser sails. In fact, its rare to see two sailors using the exact same scale. Some older boats have relatively crude scales, long since superseded. My own Laser, Merlarkey, is marked 77778. Once thought to be an improvement on the famous “lucky 7” scale, this in fact turns out to contain recursively contradictory sub-algorithmic derivatives leading to a tendency to capsize - without warning - in almost any conditions on almost any point of sail. There is practically nothing I can do about this.

Leading edge Laserites continue to experiment with ever more complex and more finely calibrated scales in their search for the holy grael of Laser sailing: the FECK (Fractal Extenuation Constant for Kickers). More complex means more numbers and it is this that has given rise to the widespread misunderstanding that it’s some kind of serial number that’s on the sail. Laser sailors, of course, know exactly who each of their competitors is and have no need for any kind of identification mark, numeric or otherwise. This applies to the Olympics as much as it does to club racing.


One of the questions on the club questionnaire this autumn was about increasing the number of competitors in club racing. It seems to me that more variety and fun needs to be introduced to stimulate more interest, and I humbly submit the following suggestions.

Obstacle Race

One fleet (eg Hurricanes) races a windward-leeward course whilst a second fleet (eg Lasers) reaches back and forth across the course in an attempt to obstruct the progress of the first fleet. The normal Rules of the Road are suspended for participating boats. Anyone from the first fleet involved in a collision is disqualified and, as well as making good any damage, must invite the injured party out to a slap-up dinner at the restaurant of the latter’s choice. Dangerous, yes, but truly exhilarating.

The Walter Raleigh Heritage Trophy

The object of this race is to be the first boat to return to shore having successfully removed a fender from the Stuart Lines cruise ship The Pride of Exmouth whilst the latter is actively cruising between buoy 25 and Nob. This would be a “free for all” race with no handicaps applied. The fender so removed must be presented to the OOD for authentification.

The name of this trophy reflects its objective, namely to keep alive this country’s historical expertise in privateering and piracy, traditions now sadly in decline here in the UK whilst other parts of the world continue to hone their skills. With no rules as such, tactics would be entirely up to the crews thus placing a premium on qualities such as imagination, deception and improvisation. The date of the race would be passed by word of mouth only, in order to prevent Stuart Lines from spoiling our fun.

The Random Cup

This race is run in the usual way but  the winner is picked out of a hat once all boats are back ashore. As well as the cup itself, the winning crew receives (say) £1,000 in cash. It is only necessary to start the race in order to be a contender, whilst DNFs, DSQs etc do not cause a boat to be withdrawn from the lottery at the end. The appeals procedure would be suspended for this race.

The reason this race will increase the number of competitors at club racing is that no one will know when it is to take place. The Race Manager software could be upgraded so that it randomly picks one race a year to be the Random Cup and it only reveals this fact once the race is over. As the OOD clicks on the “This race is now complete so please calculate the results” button, a special screen appears informing them that “This race has been selected as the Random Cup for [the year in question] and the randomly selected winner is...” Imagine the excitement!

Capsize of the Season

By which I mean my capsize of the season - this is not an open trophy competition. You are invited to vote for your favourite by replying to the Duffage post on the Forum (under General under Racing). Please make it clear if you witnessed the capsize you are voting for as in that case you vote will count double.

The contenders are:

A - The Dive. The capsize involving the broken tiller extension, the safety boat and the backwards dive out of my Laser as described in full in Duffer’s Diary 3.

B - The Whirlpool. This was probably in the Spring Series. A strong easterly came on even stronger as I set out on a run from the Salmon Pool to buoy 33, which latter was the gybe point. This is the kind of situation that is hard for a beginner to practice. With little experience you are almost bound to make a mistake. A split second later you are in the water. All you can do is to right the boat and carry on, trying not to make the same mistake again. If you succeed in doing that you can then make a different mistake. Eventually, by a process of elimination, you find you can manage it. That’s the theory. Anyway, I made it as far as the gybe point and decided to wear round rather than try a clearly suicidal gybe. Seemed logical but I had never done it before. The weather helm was very strong, I got the tiller round a bit and the boat veered round into a windward capsize. As I surfaced the falling boom caught my forehead, leaving me with a souvenir lump for the rest of the week.

I got the boat back up but somehow ended up facing the same problem. I’d righted the boat head to wind and was thus in irons. When I was ready I set about getting out of irons. Suddenly I shot off on a reach. The wrong reach, and hence I had to try and wear round again. It was a similar kind of capsize only this time I swear the front of the boat was pulled round because I came to the edge of a hole in the water. It was round, about three feet in diameter and about a foot deep. That’s what I saw in the second or two before the boat went over. There are various plausible lines of enquiry, not least one that takes into account the bang on the head I had received just minutes before. Was I over some formation in the sandbank? Tide against wind over current? A stray eddy fired off by a passing cat???

C - Mr Angry. In the early days of Begin To Race, the Topper fleet liked to reach up and down the line until their start. The handicap fleet complained because they started first and would find the line was full of flying Toppers, hunting in packs. One week, after another reminder to keep clear until the handicap fleet had gone had fallen on deaf (wet?) ears, I took it upon myself to cruise around shouting at the Toppers to keep clear. Of course I got carried away and the next thing I knew the horn was sounding for my start. Panicking, I pushed the tiller right over in order to head for the line. Merlarkey spun round suddenly and capsized, leaving me with a mouthful of water (I was still shouting when I went under) and, presumably, a well-amused Topper sailor reaching happily along the line. This was my most educational capsize. I realised that I was the one who came out worst when I lost my cool. Better to remain calm and treat errant Toppers as natural hazards that made the start more interesting. (Soon after this the Toppers succumbed to dark threats of disqualification from the OOD and starting hanging back during the handicap start.)

Any Topper sailors reading this who remember being ranted at by some twit in a Laser might like to know that I got my just desserts for my un-seamanlike and rather rude behaviour. And please would they accept my unreserved apologies. I am, after all, more than old enough to know better.

D - Back and Forth. Another day when the wind strengthened as I was on a run. The water was already choppy - choppier than I had ever sailed on before - and I had been bouncing along before I went over. Merlarkey seemed to want to lie parallel to the waves and roll in them. She was rolling quite a lot, making it more difficult for me to move around her. Slowly I made it round the boat but as I approached the dagger board she slid down the back of a wave and the dagger board slid back into the boat and out the other side to land in the water. I went round topside, inserted it and pushed it back ‘down’ through the boat. By the time I got  round again ‘under’ the boat the dagger board had slid back in. This happened a number of times.  I couldn’t get round the boat in time before the board would slide and I couldn’t immediately work out how to hold it in place. When the safety boat came I explained what was happening. They manoeuvred round brilliantly in the choppy conditions and held the dagger board in position until I got there, then backed off so I could climb on and right the boat. Enough for one day, I reached as gently as I could back to the galley and the comfort of a bacon sandwich.

So, those are the contenders for Duffer Capsize of the Year. The winner will be announced at the Annual Duffer’s Dinner in December, which takes place in the Italian restaurant at The Beacon Hotel, Exmouth, and I’m pleased to announce that this year’s special guest speaker will be my personal Commodore and sailing muse, Di. I’ll let you know in due course what we had to eat and which capsize was chosen as the winning entry.

Cat Corner

No Duffer’s Diary would be complete without some news from the world of multi-hull racing. My two cats - Lily and Tao - are two good-looking, very sweet-natured, curious and affectionate one year-old kittens. Unfortunately they don’t get on very well and will fight over food, favourite cushions and our attention. The only time they pull together is when defending their territory against a third party. Obviously this has nothing whatever to do with multi-hulls, but the cats have been a part of our lives since they arrived last January and I’ve been looking for some excuse to mention them.

What is to do with multihull racing and something which I, as a newcomer struggling to get to grips with racing, have found inspiring this year has been the performance of Jeremy Lees and Peter Browne in a Hurricane in the Evening Series. Overcoming a disappointing number of last positions (typically coming in 1st in a fleet of one) and the obstacles presented by other river users, perseverance paid off in the end and the trophy is theirs.


I think I’ve run out of superlatives to use when thanking the safety boat crews, galley slaves and all the others who make sailing both possible and so hugely enjoyable at SYC. And alongside that is all the encouragement and advice I’ve received from fellow sailors. So a simple “thank you” will have to suffice this time - that and the knowledge that you all love it like I do.

Spell Check

Once I finish my diaries I run the spell checker. This one didn’t recognise the word “duffage” and suggested “duff age” as an alternative. Hmm, that may be the one piece of equipment I can’t upgrade...

See you in the water.


PS BTR 2011 participants go out NOW and buy a diary.