West Highland Week 2003

(Copied from the Impala 28 Message Board, 12 August 2003, where it was posted as ‘No Win(d) at West Highland Week’.)

So perhaps the whole country might have been basking in record temperatures, but what we could really have done with at West Highland Week 2003 is some wind! With two days’ racing abandoned and no discards, several classes were decided on the narrowest of margins and, with just three points finally splitting the top five boats in Class 5, some justifiable pride in Fly’s fourth place will always be tempered by her young crew’s realisation of what might have been...

The Saturday feeder race from Oban to Craobh Haven proved completely uncharacteristeric of the week with a stiff, stiff beat that cost former Class 5 winner Northern Comfort her mast before we’d even left the Sound of Kerrera. Despite the number of boats changing down or reefing all around us, Fly was able to hang on to her full main and no.1 all the way and finished in a respectable ninth place from thirty starters. The main talking point of the day (apart from the dismasting), however, had to be the extraordinary performance of the Forth-based H Boat Hard to be Humble, which won the race by a country mile and actually finished ahead of us of the water! It also seems appropriate at this point to record the generosity of Ronnie MacKillop (who had only entered for the weekend) in lending Wise-Crack to Northern Comfort’s Graham Anderson for the rest of the week so he could carry on racing.

As the first race of the week proper, Sunday’s return trip to Oban provided the first taste of the conditions that were to dominate the 2003 points series. Very light winds and the usual fun and games in the ferocious tides through Fladda made this race every bit as difficult as ever, so most competitors were probably relieved to be sucked across the very early finish line facing the right way in the end! Anyone who knows this race will probably understand when I say that a sixth place for Fly was both a disappontment and a relief, because so often the first day of West Highland Week seems to be as much a game of snakes and ladders as a yacht race...

Monday’s round the buoys racing off Oban never happened. The Committee kept us waiting for hours and couldn’t be faulted for the abandonment, but the wind just never filled in at all. As usual, folk made the best of it with water fights, swimming and wake boarding under power all proving popular. Our small contribution to this lunacy was to rock Fly through the fleet at speeds of up to 2.9 knots, at which point fatigue and overheating finally put paid to our chances of making that a round 3.0!

Tuesday’s Round Lismore Race nearly suffered the same fate as Monday’s round the buoys, but we did in the end manage a race from the Greggs to Branra (which isn’t very far at all!). A good performance in the light upwind conditions certainly had me considering the possibility of a race win, but we were eventually caught and passed by the Sundream 28 Blue Ark, which disappeared towards Eilean Dubh on an invisible conveyor belt while we were caught failing to complete a tack in a shifting zephyr. After that, the dying breeze simply began to open up the most enormous margins between the boats, with Blue Ark’s quarter-of-an-hour victory on the water and Fly’s half-hour in hand over third-placed Amoress in our class being typical of the fleet as a whole.

Sadly, Wednesday’s racing eventually disappeared down the same big hole as Monday’s. The Race Committee moved us further and further up the Sound of Mull towards Tobermory, even setting a start line just a few miles from that fabled destination, but, just as the breeze finally appeared to start filling in and we set our mainsail in the expectation of a race, the three guns for the abandonment sounded. To be truthful I was surprised, having just taken the topping lift off the boom, heard the first gun and looked round expecting to see the postponement flag come down, but abandoned it was and the mad scramble for moorings and spaces to anchor in Tobermory began! Since it was close to high tide, a substantial proportion of the fleet chose to take the drying ‘back door’ through the Doirlinn into Tobermory, resulting in a bizarre procession through that normally quiet passage.

Thursday’s round the buoys racing off Tobermory can be safely filed under the description of ‘completely surreal’. While there appeared to be a decent prospect of wind for the first time in the week, the morning race disappeared while we waited for thick fog to clear. Probably because of the mounting frustration throughout the fleet, the Committee eventually took the bold decision to send us off on an afternoon race towards a windward mark identifiable only by its latitude and longitude. So we marked the start line to give us some idea of where to look for the leeward mark and set off through the fog up the left side of the beat (and uptide of the mark) in the company of Revolver and fellow Impala Wise-Crack. As soon as the windward mark finally appeared out of the murk and no more of our class were visible either approaching or rounding it, we knew that the boats that had taken the other side of the beat had lost out big time and a place was as assured as it ever can be. Although Revolver proved just a little too fast for us on the day, we always had Wise-Crack where we wanted them and were rewarded with another second place, which took us into second overnight with everything to play for on the final day.

Despite the satisfaction of moving into second place, the possible permutations of the final Friday were almost mind-boggling! If we won the last race and overnight leader Blue Ark placed third or worse, the class was ours. If Highpointer or Amoress beat us by two places or Revolver by three, they finished above us. While we were fired up by the realistic possibility of the class win, we were aware that we could just as easily drop out of the top three altogether and, having come fifth three times out of four with Fly, I simply couldn’t bear the thought of coming fifth again! So, for what it’s worth, we tied our laughing fly mascot to the backstay, threw pieces of fly cemetery into the sea with chants of ‘be afraid’ and set sail. A bright and breezy start led to a progressively dying beat down the Sound of Mull and, with our last real chance to pass Amoress and Wise-Crack (who beat us for the first time in the week) evaporating not far short of the shortened finish off Lochaline, our third place on the water translated to a fifth on the day on handicap and a fourth overall. Since the Wise-Crack boys later claimed that we’d both ‘had’ Amoress till they started to cover us over the closing mile or so, and the second place that would have given us on the day with Blue Ark sixth would have brought us the class win, a strong smell of ‘what if?’ is still hanging in the air. To look on the bright side, however, if we hadn’t beaten Blue Ark by two seconds on the day, we’d have dropped to fifth overall, so it really was tight at the top. Ultimately we took the decisions we took for the reasons that looked right at the time, that’s racing and fourth place in our extremely competitive little class has to be seen as a massive improvement on the disappointment of Bangor!

Before signing off this report, I simply have to thank my very ‘scratch’ crew for their contribution to the week. Since only Michael and Karen had ever raced the boat before (for a week and a weekend respectively) and none of the others except Robbie and Zoe (once each) had ever even sailed on her, they really did a great job! For the record, they were Karen, Robbie and Tim (all week), Michael (all week except Saturday), Susan and Jeremy (Sunday and Saturday), Zoe (Monday and Tuesday) and Thomas (Wednesday, Thursday and Friday).

Class 5 Overall Results:

1st Amoress (Norlin Three-Quarter Tonner) 2, 3, 7, 1 = 13
2nd Highpointer (Manzanita) 1, 6, 5, 2 = 14
3rd Blue Ark (Sundream 28) 3, 1, 4, 6 = 14
4th Fly (Impala) 6, 2, 2, 5 = 15
5th Revolver (Gibsea 92) 4, 8, 1, 3 = 16
6th Wise-Crack (Impala) 7, 5, 3, 4 = 19
7th Trillian (Moody S31) 8, 7, 8, 7 = 30
8th Rampart (Hydro) 5, 9, 6, 11 = 31
9th Ariadne (Toledo) 9, 4, 11, 11 = 35
10th Clyde Calypso (Jeanneau Attalia) 10, 11, 11, 8 = 40
11th Northern Comfort (Comfort 30) 13, 14, 11, 11 = 49

(Original results link now dead.)

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