6,500 kilometers, 12 countries, 3 encounters with the police and a good haul of Silver. No, this is not how to commit a daring robbery - this is what it takes to win the 18ft skiff European Tour.
Friday 30th April 2011, 8 days before the second UK grand prix event in Southampton and 12 days before we needed to leave for the European tour and I am at the ferry port in Harwich collecting our new (to us) boat which will hopefully propel us in the next level of 18ft skiff sailing. The reason for the boat arriving by sea into Harwich was our distinct lack of time. We had bought the boat via the internet in what could only be described as a quick purchase having only just sold our last 18. We had no time to see the boat or collect it in person as it was in Denmark. The solution was to get the owner to drive it to the port in Denmark and stick it on the 1st available ferry.
So there I was, looking at our new ship thinking we may have bitten of more than we can chew here. Little did I know we had!
So, Mike Banks, co-owner and middleman and Sam Caslin, bowman assembled the next day in scruffy clothes for what we know was going to be a laborious day of sanding. We have had two 18ft skiffs before this one and due to nature of these boats the only way to be sure of what you are dealing with it to sand it completely back to bare carbon and examine it. This also allowed us in this case to change the colour of the boat from bogey green to the new white and black colour scheme now used by our sponsor Hyde sails. We had completed the lung bleeding work by Sunday.
With everyone now back at work for the week the boat saw no attention from us but what it did get was a shiny new re-spay from Paul Church. Not going to make it go faster but it certainly helps psychologically.
One week to the day from collection we are heading to Southampton for the second UK Grand Prix event anticipating that we would miss the 1st day of racing while we put the boat together and get it tested before the European season kicks off in Hungary in 5 days time. Driving down we knew it would be a tight time scale but things still didn’t go quite to plan!
We managed to screw and epoxy all the blocks on and re-lead ropes and splice everything together. The deck layout of 18ft skiffs are remarkably simple consisting of only 5 blocks that are fastened to the deck and 3 cleats. The afternoon soon appeared and the time had come to stick the untested small rig in as it was windy, 18ft skiffs have 2 rigs one for heavy winds 16 + knots and another the no.1 rig for 16 knots and below. Taking the big rig out in too much wind will result in carbon/crew being broke and money being spent.
We set sail with our new Hyde Sail square top sails, which afford maximum sail area (mast length and boat length are the only rules that govern the class). We charged off across Southampton water with the Spinnaker up when BANG- In the middle of the shipping lane our spreader had ripped off. The mast sagged violently to leeward, which forced the chain plate pin to bend and release. This left Sam hanging on the rig like human rigging whilst Mike quickly set about getting some rope to create a jury rig for the trip home. All this was going on whilst a huge ferry was coming down Southampton water, but we could not sheet on or change course dramatically as the rig would have just fallen over. In the end we managed to secure it and head back to shore.
At this point the list of jobs was growing and we thought Hungary, the first Euro GP, could be in doubt. Another day of boat work ashore on Sunday meant that we did not complete one race in Calshot; whilst this was not ideal the three of us already knew our focus was on Europe rather than the domestic regattas. On the Tuesday of that week Sam and I left the UK for the drive through multiple countries to Lake Balaton in Hungary. We made it late Wednesday night after a stern telling off from a Slovenian Policeman who wanted €300 euro from us for speeding, which we negotiated down to zero by doing our best ‘we do not understand what you are saying ‘impressions.
Day 1 dawned big rig very light winds. We made a good start from the middle of the line rounded the top mark in the lead restoring some faith in the caliber of the new boat. Despite getting gobbled up on the downwind after choosing the wrong gate mark at the bottom, we managed to pull away up the beat again to take what would be our first win in Europe.
Day 2 Light again. We had a bad start and were forced to tack away and go up the right. The venue, Lake Balaton, is huge but very shallow its only 2m deep, which gives the water a distinctive velvety texture and gives it an electric blue colour, which means it’s hard to read the wind on the water. We rounded the mark first showing in these 5-7knot conditions the boat was absolutely flying. We sailed on to a massive 4 minute lead.
Day 3 cancelled. Day 4 and it was really windy top end of the no.2 rigs with a menacing short chop. All we had to do was finish 3rd and the event was ours. Before the start our jib Cunningham broke, not ideal for lots of wind as the last thing we needed was deeper sails. 30 seconds till the gun and we were committee boat end on port about to tack in to a gap when we capsized. We managed to right the boat and set off last rounding the top mast last it was like a graveyard as most boats had nose dived around the top mark and pitch poled, we were up to 5th and still in with a chance. We charged downwind going past another victim of the wind into 4th and then passing another upside down boat on the beat; we were where we needed to be, could we keep the mast up that way for the entire race? On the final leg to finish in 3rd place we gybed too late for the line. This was my call but with such a short line and doing about 20-25 knots whilst not being able to see and hanging on for your life, this was an easy error to make. We started dropping the kite when we capsized. It was Ok we could see we had a big lead over the 4th placed boat but it was going to be hard to get the boat up and then bear away without crashing again. We managed to do it and to ours and every ones relief they cancelled the next race as the wind was insane by now. It took us another hour just to sail the 700m back to club but we did not care we had won the first event of the European tour!
upwind in Hungary on Day 1
We flew home from Hungary leaving the boat and van there as we were flying out again in 2 weeks to drive to Garda for the Europeans, excited by our good performance in Hungary who knew what could happen?
On the drive down, we had our usual share of weird experiences we visited Croatia for 20 seconds as we used their boarder post to execute a U-turn and then got a telling off and fined €100 in Italy for not have the correct method of signage for the masts that were extending over the back of our trailer, we were using a tube and the law says a square is needed, we thought this was rather harsh.
We spent the whole week in Garda on the 2 rig which was a shame given out blistering pace on the bigger rig.
The Europeans Day 1 Race 1 Having had a good start we rounded the top mark in the first 7 and with a good gap back to others by the bottom we had moved up 1 place over taking the Germans and looking to take the right hand gate mark to get back under the cliffs where the wind is strongest. As we were heading to the cliffs we suddenly were all swimming. We surfaced to find the mast had fallen down, great! Event over only 2 discards allowed and it was 3 races a day and we still had to have it fixed by tomorrow.
Day 2 Mast not fixed in time for race 1. We were going have to count 2 last places in our series, not looking good!
The remainder of the event we sailed well bar one bad race which we scored another DNF. Despite some bad races we lead a few and had a couple of top 3 finishes. We worked out, that if the event started from when we had our mast fixed we would have finished in the top 5 which was disappointing but allowed us to take some positives away from the regatta..
Event 3 Holland.
This was the first time the 18ft skiff circus had been to Holland and we arrived to find a small patch of water with depth restrictions, which would mean some very tight and close racing.
The event was good for us. We won the event and ended up counting 4 wins out of the 8 race series, with only 1 result outside the top 3. Consistency is key here due to the small tight race area if you could get into the lead you had a good chance of staying there and controlling the pack. The organizers did a fantastic job and put on a very good event. Win number 2!
Event 4 Travermunde Northern Germany.
This event is one of our favorite regattas – in any class of boat. It is effectively a week long party with hundreds of boats on the water enjoying some great but sometimes cold sailing. In this case it was boiling we had an awesome time! We managed to sail consistently to take 2nd place in the regatta. We could have won it on the last race but made the wrong decision. We should have match raced the Danes down the fleet but we thought the chances of us doing this in the 18ft skiff were slim. We ended up beating them in the race but not by enough to win overall.
We did win the Trav Race this is the race that takes part on the river Trav in the Town with 10,000 spectators lining the shore only feet from the action. It’s always tense as its no wider than the Thames but has large commercial shipping going up and down in between race that you have to dodge. We have proved the master of the Trav and have won the event 2 times previous and we were looking to make it 3. Luckily we sailed well. It can be very hit or miss but we took trophy for the 3rd time. Video of 2010 here: Trav Race 2010
Event 5, finally back in the UK - Plymouth. All we had to do was beat the German team ‘Euro link’ by 5 places and the trophy was ours.
Day 1 We managed an 8, 3, 4 putting us 4th over night and level with them.
Day 2 was average with a 5, 4, RTD but we did not care we had done enough to win the European tour by now so all that was left was to get ashore and Party, which we did!
All in all we have had a fantastic season of racing, in what can only be described as one of the most amazing boats in the sport with some of sailings top athletes, many who have done Olympic campaigns or won World, European and National championships. There were tough times, when you have gear failure and there is a lot of travel involved, but we have been to places we would have never been and laughed our selves silly over the course of the year. I would advise any group of sailors who fancy a challenge to come and do it. It’s not expensive compared to sailing any high performance boat because you can split the costs 3 ways. In our case Mike and I have spent the same amount of money buying this boat as what it would have cost to buy a new Laser and I certainly know what I would rather sail!
Helm – JACK GROGAN
Middleman – MICHAEL BANKS
Bowman – SAM CASLIN