RAF Coningsby Team at RAF Sailing Regatta

Between the 6th and 10th June 2011, 7 teams took part in the Royal Air Force Sailing Association (RAFSA) sailing regatta in the Solent. Sailing the Joint Services fleet of Victoria 34’s, teams varied in experience, from complete novice to yacht-masters. Sgt Si Smith, Logistics Sqn, organised a team from RAF Coningsby to take part.

An early morning start saw five members of RAF Coningsby set off to the Joint Services Adventurous Sailing Training Centre (JSASTC) in Gosport to take part in the RAFSA Sailing Regatta. Unable to source a Coastal Skipper (minimum requirement) the RAFSA organised one for us who we were to meet at Gosport. The team from Coningsby consisted of SAC Tom O’Neill, C4I (Day Skipper), Sgt Si Smith, LS (Competent Crew), Sgt Ian Wright, MAC (Competent Dingly sailor), Chf Tech Simon Price, TSC (been out the weekend before!) and SAC Luke Perryman, 11 Sqn (complete novice). After a 5 hour drive to Gosport we met up with our skipper for the week, Flt Lt Alastair Watson from RAF High Wycombe and were introduced to our Victoria 34 yacht for the week, ‘Mitra’. The next couple of hours were spent with the formalities you would expect from a Training centre; yacht inventory checks, safety briefings and signing out wet weather clothing. During the safety briefs Luke amazed the instructors in being able to wear the life jacket every conceivable way, apart from the right way much to the amusement of everyone else. The afternoon was going to be spent getting familiar with the yacht for those who hadn’t been on board before, practice race starts for the following day and practicing how to rig and fly the spinnaker. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t very co-operative and there was hardly enough wind to maintain any forward movement without assistance from the engine. We managed a couple of practice starts before heading back into Gosport for the night. Accommodation for the week was our yacht which had all the amenities you need, including 7 beds, although 2 were more like shelves, cooker and toilets, more commonly known as ‘heads’ by our seafaring friends.

Race one was due to start at 0900hrs just outside Portsmouth harbour in the Solent, so another early start beckoned. Tom, the skippers mate and navigator had to get the race course from the Committee boat and quickly start plotting our course for the race. Race one was a passage race and would last most of the day. The wind was a lot fresher and the race got underway without any incidents and we managed to get into 3rd place. After the 3rd mark we had taken 2nd spot and were chasing the leaders out to the east end of the Solent. As the morning progressed the wind was increasing, but we stuck to our original sail plan. At the next mark the lead boat all of a sudden went for a foresail change and we took the lead. We rounded the next mark just off Bembridge bank and the chasing boat missed the turn and had to put an extra tack in, increasing our lead. We held the lead for the next two marks before we had to pull our foresail down due to an impending squall. Not having a smaller sail at hand, the change was rather slow; we lost the lead and eventually second place. After nearly 7hrs of racing we crossed the line in 3rd place, a good effort for our inexperienced crew. That night we moored up in Cowes on the Isle of Wight and had a crew debrief and discussion over our strategy for the following day over a couple of drinks in a local hostelry.

Wednesday and Thursday was a series of shorter races, 3 or 4 a day with the first race starting at 0900hrs. The wind was forecast to be even stronger and was already blowing hard before we left the marina. Our sail plan was discussed and sails rigged and Al said that we would stick with our sail plan as we didn’t have time to change sails in a short race. The race duly started and within half an hour the skipper made the decision to change sail! By now we were in a Force 7 and trying to change sail was easier said than done. Stuck in the bow of the boat, frantically trying to hold on whilst changing sail, (a two handed job), quickly focussed the mind but after a lot of hard work and commitment we actually managed a very quick sail change. Despite all this effort we came in 7th out of 7. With only 15 minutes between races, just about enough time to get the new course over the radio and plot it on the chart, we were off again. The wind hadn’t eased up but we were now on the correct sails for the conditions. There was plenty of ‘tacking’ and ‘jibing’ going on and it was extremely hard work for all on board. If you weren’t winding winches you were throwing yourself across the top of the boat, trying to miss the boom from taking your head off, to get back on the opposite rail to try and straighten the boat out. By the end of the day, with everyone exhausted and black and blue, we headed back into Cowes as the weather had prevented us from reaching our planned night stop of Yarmouth. Following another debrief over a few nerve settlers, Ian rallied the team and we decided we would give it everything the following day to try and improve on our best finish of 6th.

We woke up on the Thursday still feeling exhausted and with the wind not so strong. It was looking good for some spinnaker action so we readied the spinnaker pole and sheets just in case. The first race started at 0915hrs in order to de-conflict with another race and after a good start we were up there fighting with the others. We had made the decision that on our final downwind leg that we would fly our spinnaker. Si Smith and Ian readied themselves for action on the call from the skipper, we had a near faultless hoist first time and we steamed for the finish. We had managed fifth place. At the start of the second race of the day the wind just suddenly died and it took nearly all the boats about 20 minutes to cross the start line before the wind started to pick up again. The racing was a whole lot closer now with yachts in very close proximity to each other and skippers were becoming very vocal in shouting warnings to other yachts. Unfortunately our spinnaker ropes got tangled in the second race and the call came to take it back down and we lost a place on the run for the line. With the wind now getting back up in the region of a Force 7, the final race of the day would take us over towards our night stop in Hamble. With the wind blowing in excess of 20 knots the work rate picked up once again with 4 of us at times hanging over the edge. With the yacht leaning over at around 30° – 40°, the top rail on the leeward side was in the water. At one stage we managed to swamp the cockpit much to the annoyance of our skipper, Al, who got his feet wet! Behind us in the race, two yachts touched each other while fighting to turn a mark and as stated in the rules, the two yachts had to return to Gosport for inspection by the JSASTC staff. The last race saw us get our best result of the short race series with 4th place. We finished in 6th place overall, a bit disappointing, but considering our inexperience and the weather conditions we felt we had achieved masses. After arrival in Hamble marina for our overnight stop on the Thursday, prize giving took place at the RAF Yacht Club followed by a meal. RAF Valley took first place in both the passage race and
the series race.

With the racing all over, all that remained for the Friday was a leisurely return to Gosport. As we hadn’t had much chance to fly our spinnaker all week we decided to fly it on our way home as we would be travelling with the prevailing wind. However, on the Friday morning things were pretty still and we ended returning back to Gosport under engine power. It was much more relaxed and everyone chilled out trying to nurse their bruised and battered bodies. On arrival in Gosport the yacht was thoroughly cleaned and kit handed back before heading back to Coningsby. On return, everyone agreed that it had been an extremely hard but really rewarding trip which, despite being a sports event, was definitely more along the lines of Adventurous Training. Despite the hard work and comments like “I am never sailing again”, Si Smith and Simon Price have both been accepted onto Leg 2 of Exercise Caribbean Wings in October sailing from the Canary Islands across the Atlantic to Grenada in the Caribbean on a 4 week adventure. A full report will follow on their return.