Scottish Two-Handed Race 2003

(Copied from the Impala 28 Message Board, 3 September 2003.)

For those who are unfamiliar with this event, it’s a major race on the Scottish calendar, with a magnificent Viking Sword as the trophy for the ‘blue-riband’ 80 mile ‘long course’ round Arran (which we sailed). This race report is cross-posted from Flypaper and Clydesailing, but why not when it relates to a big win for Fly? It’s also nice to be able to add that Class 3 on the 40 mile ‘short course’ was won by fellow Impala Orrkid, sailed by Alistair and Eilidh Orr.

So perhaps I had reservations about speaking to the press after the Lochaber News printed a story about me growing up in Bangor and learning to sail on Belfast Lough (when I’d never been to either before this summer!), but Andi Robertson appeared with his notebook at the Two-Handed Prizegiving and I suppose answering a few questions comes with the territory when you win such a prestigious event. Trying to explain what had drawn us to compete in the race, I thought for a moment, came up with some sensible reasons (‘something a bit different’, ‘something to get your teeth into’) before confiding that, after we’d read two years ago that Jon Fitzgerald and Chris Dodgshon had just won it for the third year on the trot, I’d remarked that it was about time someone took that Viking Sword off them and promptly added it to my programme! Despite my very next remark (‘but you can’t print that’), something about Andi’s reply suggested that I might be wise to say you saw it here first...

Now, while Sandy Loynd and myself (presumably like all the competing crews) harboured hopes of winning the race, I suppose our realistic first target was to improve on my 2002 attempt with Twig Olsen, which was hampered from the start by the pasting we took (as the smallest boat) on a very stiff beat to the Cock of Arran and the lost ground we were never able to make up. So off we set for the 2003 edition, which started in the most unpromising and, quite frankly, comical fashion. With a strong tide sucking the fleet back from the line and next to no wind, the smart thinkers from several successive starts set themselves up *in front of* the boats from the previous start while they could still legitimately use their engines, only to be leapfrogged in the same way by those from the following start. Nobody we saw kedged at this point, although we did consider both the act and the chaos it might cause if everyone tried it...

Since the race effectively took two or three hours to get going, the potential benefits of being the slowest boat in class had crossed our minds but, when the fastest boats (thinking mostly of Playing FTSE, Animula, Joyride and Tartan Revolution) eventually broke clear in the direction of Arran, we were still struggling through the Tan so slowly that we probably gave most of them back most of that ‘free start’. A pleasant beat over to the Cock of Arran in predominantly light conditions eventually followed with Fly (still ahead of Quail but behind all the others) saving the tacking for the Arran shore and only Red Alert taking a significantly different line by putting in the tacks early. While Quail caught and passed us at Loch Ranza as we started to crack the sheets and her length started to tell, we were pleased to find ourselves also still in touch with Pure Magic (who was parked up close to the shore) and a group consisting of Red Alert, Scarlet Fever and A.N.Other (Skerryvore?), who appeared to be tacking almost northwards around a large hole which had just started to fill as we arrived. So, after a much shorter tack to skirt the deadest patch, we set off down the west of Arran in hot pursuit of the pack.

Although we felt that we had sailed the beat well, the best was yet to come with the perfect run down the Kilbrannan Sound in generally freshening conditions. Running very deep under kite, we sailed almost straight for Iron Rock Ledges buoy, gybing for the mark with minimal alteration to our course (and no initial adjustment to sheet or guy) at much the same time as the boats ahead of us gybed in at an angle from further offshore. Timing a group consisting of Skerryvore (I think) and Scarlet Fever round the buoy at 22 minutes ahead of us and another comprising Pure Magic, Red Alert and Quail (can’t remember the exact order) at just 12 minutes was a major boost when even our closest rivals on handicap (Red Alert and Quail) needed in the region of half-an-hour at that stage, so we hardened up onto the reach for Pladda (taking the direct approach again) in the full knowledge that we currently ‘had’ all the boats we could still identify and the fair assumption that we were probably still favourably placed compared to the more distant sails still just about visible further up the Firth.

Shortly after the kites all came down off Pladda, it became obvious that something wasn’t right aboard Scarlet Fever, who lost a lot of ground to the rest of the pack in quite a short time. Darkness followed dusk as we passed Holy Island, with the lights of the faster boats steadily drawing away from us on what threatened to be a processional fetch back to Little Cumbrae Light and the Holy Island lighthouse illuminating our sails so brightly for so long that we began to wonder if we’d ever fully escape its clutches. By the time we did, we had an alternative source of light from Stella McCartney’s fireworks, which, considered along with last year’s show up Dunoon way, could easily have left me with the impression that the Two-Handed not only comes packaged with comparitively rare northerlies as standard but includes firework displays to liven up the sail home! While the wind piped up enough for us to be at the limit for the No.1 and using next to nothing of the main for some distance, the unwanted sail change was avoided as we feathered through the worst of it and kept sailing quickly as things began to moderate again but, although we felt that we sailed this leg as fast we reasonably could, we were worried about the ground we must be losing to the bigger, more powerful boats.

By the time we finally turned into the Tan, the breeze was dying (please no, not like last year, when we sat wallowing off Millport for an hour!) and we’d become fairly convinced that our golden opportunity had gone. Halfway through the Tan on a beam reach, it suddenly occurred to us that a kite might be a good idea, but neither of the kites was packed and, by the time we had one ready, we’d come to the conclusion that any advantage in setting it would be marginal by that stage. So we hardened up into the Largs Channel in near calm conditions, sure that that was that and we could even be looking at last place when, to our absolute amazement, we suddenly found ourselves staring at five sets of lights still sailing for the line! Ghosting past Quail and Scarlet Fever in the dark was an unexpected bonus, not to mention Race Control’s curious use of the word ‘congratulations’ as we made our post-line call. So why did they say that, when surely ‘well done’ would have been enough for another valiant effort, and did we dare read what we hoped they meant into it? When had the really fast boats finished, could *we* possibly have won and could we stomach the inevitable disappointment when we turned out to be fourth or fifth after all? The answers clearly had to wait as we tumbled exhausted into our bunks at nearly 3am, but it bothered me all night and my head was still buzzing with a potent cocktail of anticipation and dread as I approached the clubhouse much later that morning to confirm that we *had* really won the Scottish Two-Handed Race at the second attempt!

Now, while I’d be the first to admit that the conditions suited us, I’d be equally adamant that the conditions usually suit someone (not always us!), we still had to sail the boat fast in the right direction to win and we beat some first-rate opposition to do so. From Cumbrae to Cumbrae (which is most of the way), I believe we sailed as well as we’ve ever done, and Fly simply felt like she had wings! While we’ve had some good results in some of the major West Coast events, the Two-Handed Race has to be our biggest and most satisfying win ever in terms of prestige and certainly the first time (admittedly out of just six days’ racing!) we’ve really done ourselves justice on the Clyde. If we ever win it again (and you can bet your bottom dollar we’ll be trying!) I’ll be delighted, but, for the moment, it’s nice just to be able to enjoy our ‘elevation’ to the select band who have won this magnificent and coveted trophy!

(Original results link now dead.)

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