Marconi Sprint 15s 2020 – Part Two

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Marconi Sprint 15s 2020 – Part Two

Tiers and Targets

The first instalment about the Marconi Sprint 15 2020 season concluded at the beginning of November when we had just entered a second lockdown, bringing sailing to a halt again as the club was obliged to close.

If you have read the first instalment, you can jump ahead. If you missed it, here is a brief recap.

Thank you to Jenny Ball for providing this write up.

Recap of 2020 Sailing Season up to November

By that point, the Marconi Sprint 15s had already had a full sailing season which included:

  • Participation at two Winter traveller events in January and March.
  • A return to sailing in late May with lots of local cruises, including the ever-popular figure of eight route around Osea and Northey Island.
  • A shore based training session to welcome the new members to the fleet.
  • A summer series of Sunday Pursuit Races.
  • An Autumn series of Sunday racing with race box starts and two races back to back each week.
  • A series of longer cruises including trips to Pyefleet, Salcott and Tollesbury, Wivenhoe, Colchester and Burnham (an epic 54 miles in over 7 ½ hours!).
  • Four sailors taking part in the Sprint 15 Sport Nationals at North Devon in September.
  • Eleven sailors taking part in the Sprint 15 Nationals at Grafham in October.
  • A colourful Marconi Last Fling race where we swapped recent white sails for the much more attractive coloured sails from the past.

As we concluded the racing season at Marconi, nine of us were all set to take part in the Winter Series at Stone – which unfortunately had to be cancelled due to Lockdown Two.

Unfinished 2020 Business

At the club’s AGM in November, we were delighted that the Commodore, Bryan Spencer, chose to award the prestigious Barometer Trophy to the Sprint 15 fleet in recognition of their contribution to club activities during the year.

But 2020 was not over yet and we still had some unfinished business to attend to. Nigel James had been keeping a log of all the miles sailed during the season and by the end of the Last Fling, this stood at 854 miles. The mission was to reach 1000 miles by year end. This was obviously made more difficult with four weeks of no sailing – but we are not a fleet to shy away from a challenge.

In early December, Lockdown 2 came to an end and our bit of Essex was classified as Tier 2, so sailing was back on. We wasted no time getting out on the water the first weekend. It was a light wind day with beautiful skies that you only get in the wintertime and, because it was December and cold, we had the whole river to ourselves. Two of the fleet headed out towards Radio Caroline whilst the other two did a figure of eight around Thirslet and then Osea Island. A beautiful winter sunset accompanied the fleet home as they made the most of the shorter hours of daylight. The mileage total now stood at 862.

Sprint 15 sailing with the sun

Jenny and David Ball and their Sprint 15 catamarans

The following weekend saw sailing adventures on both days. On Saturday 12th December, Nigel, Jenny, Rob and Lee set off in a decent breeze around the back of Osea Island and then Nigel led the fleet on a fast blast straight across to the south entrance to the channel around Northey Island. This was an optimistic decision by our Fleet Commodore as we were, by now, some time past high water and the causeway dries out much more quickly than the Osea one. Rob was the first one to grind to a halt in the soft but unyielding mud behind the island, followed by everyone else at different points across the channel. Eventually the causeway came into view and was clearly high and dry so we headed home with another ten miles under our belt.

Mission Focused

On Sunday 13th December, Nigel, Jenny and David headed out onto the water. It was a cracking breeze from the south which allowed for some great straight line sailing, so long as you steered clear of the south shore where it became more fluky. It was a great opportunity to get some serious miles added to our total, particularly as we now only had a couple of weeks left. By this time, Jenny had become quite “mission focused” and in the cat park was using phrases like “need to break the 900 barrier”. David, who is used to his sister’s projects, paid no attention whatsoever. Fleet Commodore Nigel looked mildly alarmed.

Nevertheless, it was agreed to go for it with a blast along the full length of the river – out to The Nass off West Mersea and then back up to Maldon. We made short work of the reach out to the Nass, staying over on the north shore out of the incoming tide. We then jointly agreed to cross to the Baffle and head up to Maldon.

When we got to the Baffle, Fleet Commodore Nigel obviously decided we had not done enough dredging the day before, and arbitrarily set off round the back of Pewet Island, through the creek that runs past Bradwell Waterside and the Marina. Dave Russell, chief Sprint 15 pit crew, had spotted us from home and came out to the seawall to say hello and take a few pictures. The fleet then slowly sailed through the creek and into St Lawrence Bay – with much muttering under Jenny’s breath, because a southerly wind is not particularly useful in gaining miles if you choose to sail close up against the south shore.

Having got clear of St Lawrence Bay, David headed back to the club and Jenny and Nigel carried on all the way up to Number 10 by the entrance to Maldon before heading home. Despite the detour, another 22 miles were added and the total now stood at 895. We were within striking distance.

Nigel Sprint 15 sailing on the River Blackwater

More Tiers

On the following Wednesday, most of Essex was placed in Tier Three. Sailing was still permissible under those arrangements, so plans were put in place to go sailing the following weekend and we had no reason to be alarmed about reaching the thousand mile target.

The forecast for Saturday was for strong winds. Nigel and Jenny headed to the club “just in case” but concluded that it was too strong to sail safely so headed home and postponed sailing to the following day. Then that afternoon, we all learned with a shock that most of Essex was now placed into a whole new Tier that had been invented just for us, (well for us, London and Kent). The implications of Tier 4 were pretty hard for everyone to process for all sorts of reasons, many far more important than going sailing. But after careful consideration of all the details, we concluded that sailing was still permissible as part of regular exercise requiring only local travel – this was further confirmed by guidance from the RYA the following morning. And as a single-handed boat more than 2m wide and 5m long – the Sprint 15 enables social distancing both afloat and ashore. Perhaps our thousand-mile goal was still achievable after all.

On Sunday 20th December, Nigel and Jenny headed out in the afternoon in line with the tides. Another good breeze made for a quick sail down to the Baffle and back. The plan was to then get up to Maldon but the wind fell away and the sun set. So with limited daylight Jenny and Nigel turned round at No. 8 buoy just off Blackwater Sailing Club and arrived back at the club just as it was getting dark. We had reached a total of 913 miles and also had a lovely couple of hours of much needed escapism on our beautiful river.

Christmas Day Sail

Christmas 2020 was always going to be a different – but the Tier 4 arrangements shifted that even further as any plans to see family were no longer permissible. But a silver lining to the cloud was it created the time to go sailing on Christmas Day. Neither Nigel or Jenny had sailed on Christmas Day before – but in a year of firsts, it made sense to have some good ones. And since growing a beard, Nigel was now rocking the Father Christmas look – (we will hire him out for children’s parties next year).

The added bonus was bright sunshine and a decent breeze from the north – so another opportunity for straight line sailing. The temperatures had dropped during the week and it was a bitingly cold day – but sunshine always makes it feel better!

Christmas Day Sail at Marconi Sailing Club on the River Blackwater

Nigel Santa Christmas Day sail

Determined not to be calling out emergency services on any day, let alone Christmas Day, Nigel and Jenny decided to follow a course within a short distance from the club and had a fantastic sail blasting multiple times between Thirslet Buoy and No.2. After two and a half hours, they headed ashore to warm up with hot food and drink provided by chief pit crew, Dave Russell and his van. A perfect way to spend an alternative Christmas Day.

We then packed our masts down ahead of Storm Bella coming through on Boxing Day and took a look ahead at plans for the rest of the week. We now had just shy of 70 miles to complete by the end of the year in five days’ time. The forecast was showing steadfastly just above freezing temperatures but good force 3 – 4 winds all week. Based on the forecast, there was every chance we would have it all done by Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest. However, the actual weather had other ideas and was determined to make us work very hard to reach our target before the deadline.

Fickle and Freezing

On Sunday, we put our masts back up and headed out in a very promising breeze with sunshine. In view of how cold it was, we decided to stay close to the club again and set a course that covered much of the river off the club (2s, 3s, 1p, Ks, Es, Bs for those who like the detail). The first hour and a half were a great blast around the course a couple of times in a decent breeze and also very active so kept us warm. Then the wind fell away and it took another hour and a half to complete one further lap. If you have ever sailed at 2 degrees for three hours – you will have an appreciation of how cold we were by the time we came in! But we were now at 950 miles…..

Earlier forecasts of force 3-4 all week were proved entirely wrong as Monday morning dawned with the river a complete millpond. However, a few knots were due in the afternoon and there was enough wind for the fleet to gently beat down to Radio Caroline and then run back against the tide, over towards the north shore. Somewhat wary of his track record with shallow waters, the others let Fleet Commodore Nigel lead the way over Thirslet Spit so that he would hit the bottom first – but the voyage passed without incident. It was another very cold sail, not helped by lack of activity. For the first time, the fleet were grateful to have to push the boats half-way up the hard because it warmed everyone up a bit!

Despite previous attempts to inflict hypothermia on him, Rob nobly turned up the next day to sail and Jenny and Nigel were also out again. A very grey day but a more promising breeze to start with and hopes of covering 18 miles. This would have taken the total to 980 and a very real opportunity to complete the challenge the following day. To ring the changes, the fleet decided to sail a zig zag course across the river up to Thirslet buoy before taking the last of the flood back up to Maldon. An enjoyable reaching / downwind sail up to G mark, then back to D, across to No.1, down to B, up to E before rounding Stone’s outer distance mark and heading back up to Thirslet buoy.

The fleet turned round at Thirslet to beat back towards Maldon and realised just how fluky the wind was. I always thought that fickle, shifty breezes were the preserve of summer days when heat thermals off the land mess with the breeze. Wrong, as it turns out. The only thermals in the area today were what we wore under our drysuits and yet the wind was shifting at 10 to 20 degrees at a time and, of course, it always seems to head rather than lift (although I have track evidence to prove this was true!). Worse still, the wind was getting softer and the tide had turned against us. We got to Osea Pier when Rob very sensibly headed back to the club. Nigel and Jenny carried on and endeavoured to crawl their way behind Northey Island through the south channel. The breeze had faded to just a few knots and after doggedly trying to beat against the tide for an hour along the south shore, it was clear that no progress was being made so we turned round and drifted home with the tide. Another very cold three hours on the water had netted us 14 miles – we were going to be up against it to reach the target before the end of the year in two days’ time.

Winter Wednesday Sailing

Wednesday morning dawned with a decent breeze but Jenny had to go to work in the morning. Fortunately, several of the people Jenny works with are either sailors or spend enough time with sailors to understand how weird they are. Once Jenny explained there was 24 miles left in the mission, they very kindly let her finish a bit early so Jenny and Nigel were able to launch by 12:30pm. Peter Richardson was also on site so offered a few words of encouragement – top quote of the day being “you’d think after 950 miles, Nigel would have worked out how to keep up”.

Launching at the top of the tide, Nigel and Jenny headed towards Maldon to ensure the tide would be with them for the journey home as the wind was forecast to drop around sunset. Unfortunately, the wind ran out of steam not long after setting off, making for a pleasant but slow beat across Steeple Bay out of the tide. We then tacked our way along the south shore making our way towards Northey Island. With weary ground hog day familiarity, we were battling large wind shifts and ever decreasing winds. By the time we got into the channel to the south of Northey, the tide had dropped sufficiently that we were not going to be able to cross the causeway. But we did both take the time to dredge a few new channels in the mud whilst we were there.

On the plus side, we were able to watch flocks of different birds enjoying this lovely part of the river. They were less impressed with the noise our battens made every time we tacked – but other than that, they were having a winter’s field day and it was lovely to watch. This time, there was enough wind to carry us round the back of Osea Island but shortly after turning around the east end of Osea Island, the wind dropped even further so we turned back to the club – another three hours of very cold sailing had earned us another 12 miles.

Wednesday was also the day that the Tiering system was being reviewed again. As soon as we had thawed out enough to operate a phone, we checked the news websites for any indications that our mission might be have to stop at this late stage by a further change to restrictions in Essex. This time, there were no changes for our area and we were able to go sailing the following day with just shy of 11 miles to reach our target.

Frozen boat cover on a catamaran sailing dinghy

Mission Accomplished!

The final week of 2020 had seen a prolonged cold spell – but the final day of the year took it to another level! It was minus two when the fleet arrived to go sailing with a biting north westerly wind. But – and this was crucial – there was actually a decent breeze! This time it was Lee’s turn to humour Nigel and Jenny that what they were doing was entirely normal by turning up to go for a sail too. And what a sail it was. A swift run down to Thirslet buoy followed by a beat back with the tide. As we passed the club, Lee headed for home and once he was safely ashore, Nigel and Jenny carried on with their planned route round the islands. There was enough breeze to hike out and keep warm, despite splashes from the short chop of wind over tide. By now, both Jenny and Nigel were wearing so many layers of clothing, it was not physically possible to bend. As a result, a whole new tacking technique called “barrel roll across the trampoline” was born. It was a lovely, if inelegant, sail.

Having reached Northey causeway, Jenny paused to open a bar of Cadbury Wholenut chocolate and wondered why she had not thought to bring one on previous journeys. Meanwhile, Nigel checked the mileage. We had done it! A thousand miles since lockdown one were now officially in the bag! If you are going to reach a milestone of this nature, Northey causeway is a magical location in which to achieve it, even if the sun was steadfastly refusing to burn through the cold cloud and mist.

But there was still daylight and some flood tide left, so Nigel suggested sailing up towards Maldon before heading home. Passing some kayakers who were obviously equally insane, Jenny and Nigel tacked their way upriver past Maldon promenade and only slightly less cold people out for a walk. With an ever-narrowing channel and increasingly fickle winds from buildings that Maldonians have inconveniently built along the river banks, the challenge to get as far as the Fullbridge was on. Just shy of the bridge, a voice called out – “I just knew it would be you!” and our very own Chris Kirby appeared on the bank. He had seen a sail and correctly deduced that only two people would be mad enough to sail in this weather and up such a narrow channel in a small catamaran. Chris kindly took photographic evidence of Jenny reaching the Fullbridge – there was no way Jenny could take pictures whilst doing very short tacks between two large and distinctly solid steel barges.

Nigel Sprint 15 sailing at Fullbridge

It was time to head for home. It was a lovely straight line sail back out past Maldon promenade and, because we are purists, the original planned route leaving Northey to port and Osea to starboard was completed. When we got back to the club on this momentous occasion, we were a bit disappointed that there was no bunting or cheering crowds, but then such things are definitely not permissible at the moment. However, Pete, Sandra and Sophie Clayton were just returning from a walk to Stone so kindly captured the successful completion of our mission by taking a photo of two sailors and their Sprint 15s.

31st December - Made it to over 1000 miles on a Sprint 15

The final scores on the doors were 1009 miles and 150 hours of water time between the end of lockdown one and the end of 2020.

Final Reflections

Its true to say that racking the miles up in warmer weather and longer daylight hours was easier than the final winter push, particularly as the weather had turned so cold. And there were times in the final week when Nigel and Jenny both wished they had taken up tiddlywinks. But its not a proper challenge if you don’t have to push yourself and we definitely felt we had earned our 1000 miles by the end of it. Like all good challenges, this one presented opportunities to try new experiences for the first time – whether that was long distance sailing to Burnham or Colchester, an epic Christmas Day sail or 20 plus miles in minus 2 degrees on New Year’s Eve.

And a lot of people were involved in helping achieve the target. Dave Russell as chief pit crew and chef, Peter Richardson as chief trolley dolly and motivational coach, all the well wishers via social media, the Sprint 15 fleet for sailing alongside us during the course of the year and, in particular, Rob and Lee who pretended it was completely normal to sail around for no purpose in late December in the freezing cold. Thanks to everyone.

Fleet Commodore Nigel tells me he has two challenges already defined for 2021 when we are able to venture out again. Now it is my turn to look mildly alarmed……….

Jenny and Nigel after 1000 miles on a Sprint 15

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Andrew is Marconi Sailing Clubs webmaster. He sails a Tornado Sport Catamaran and Sprint 15.

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