by Chris Bentley.
Food for thought
Poole Nationals were great. We did ok. We were somewhat dismayed to find that the planned AGM/meeting of Sonata members and Committee at the Nationals did not materialise. (No more so than Poole Yacht Club who had reserved room and time for it). I think the embarrassment was shared equally between the Club and us competitors.
Afterwards, Sharon and I sailed BFG back from Poole to our home port, Medway. (we enjoy a bit of Sonata travelling/camping). Inevitably on the rather long legs between the corners of England – Selsea, Beachy Head, (this trip we didn’t meet anyone who had run out of matches – in-joke for MYC Kev and Edwin), South and North Foreland – there was time to ruminate on the doings or, apparently, not much doings, of the National Sonata Association. Very tenuously, and I thought, almost inaudibly, I voiced my opinion that p’raps the NSA committee might have a vacancy. Almost without thinking too much about it, I found myself driving to Windermere in October for the actual 2009 AGM. And driving back again 48 hours later having been voted in charge of an affable bunch of fellow Sonata’ers with my last view of the Lake being half a dozen of them totally becalmed getting very wet in the ‘Windermere Drizzle’. Sonata sailing north of Watford looked a bit uninviting.
The tour takes shape
In a former life I ran a company which did communications so I decided that one of my first jobs as Chairman was to talk to the membership. Rather pompously, I penned a “Signal from the Bridge” and posted it on the website. Amongst other promises, I said that I would take BFG to the next National Champs in Helensburgh on the Clyde. I had only crossed Hadrian’s Wall twice before, neither time with a ton and a half of boat behind me. But the die was cast. We looked at the mileage chart, swallowed hard and realised that over 1000 miles of towing deserved more than four days sailing. We found something called ‘The Brewin Dolphin Regatta’ in a place called Tarbert a couple of weeks before the Nat Champs. More map reading, more miles – getting around the tops of all those lochs and kyles you have up there is one heck of a detour. And the added interest would be the lumpy bits in between. Nevertheless, it looked scenic and Brewing and Dolphins seemed an attractive mix. Again, without too much pondering, I found myself agreeing to extend the tour by another two weeks at both ends to bring in the Kip Regatta before Tarbert and to visit Whitby for the Northern Champs on the way home. Think I was a bit punch drunk by then – what’s another 100 mile detour or so!
As it has turned out, the whole adventure has been one of the best times in our lives. If anyone out there still believes that the Scots are a dour and thrifty lot who live in a land where it is either cold or wet and often lots of both, prepare yourselves to be re-educated. Friendship, hospitality, stunning scenery, beer at £2 a pint and whiskey at £1.60 for nearly double the English measure are everywhere. Oh, and we had almost continuous sunshine and temperatures in the 20’s. The sailing was also pretty good.
A log of the entire trip would be akin to watching your neighbour’s holiday slide show and anyway, that’s not why I’m writing this. My real agenda is to persuade those of you who haven’t yet tried travelling with their Sonatas or any other way to get sailing up North, to give it a go. Not just to broaden your minds and all that stuff, but because we have a great community of like-minded sailors, all sharing a common interest, even passion, for our little boats and, without exception, willing to share knowledge and tips to make us all go that little bit faster. Of course, sailing away from home also throws up different challenges and one truism about the Northern sailors is that they are indeed a canny lot and ever so good at what they do, as we often found to our cost!
So here are just a few highlights and comments you hopefully might find useful and/or entertaining if you ever decide to go North and race a Sonata, or any other boat in their very attractive bunch of series.
Kip Regatta is the ‘warm-up’ for Tarbert. It runs from Kip Marina, one of the best and most efficient marinas I have come across – from Duncan’s generous lift-in price I had previously negotiated for us Sonatas at the London Boat Show to us getting launched within 10 minutes of arriving.
We raced within a handicap fleet for Sonata trophies. Kip is one of the easiest ways to access the Firth of Clyde, being about half an hour’s drive from Glasgow or just less than an hour on the local train from Glasgow Central. The sailing is in the wider part of the Firth, towards Largs. In this case, all windward/leeward courses. The weather we experienced was a mix of gentle breezes interspersed with force six squalls as the black clouds rolled over the opposite shore and then nothing, leaving the fleet short of the line by 50 metres. It was challenging! We won the first race. Ha! This is easy we thought, only 3-up and we trounce the Sonata National Champion first race out.
The next three races soon sorted that misconception out. From ‘Wicked Wookie’ – what sort of name is that for a musical boat – banging a Starboard corner so hard he had to reach back to the windward mark to Dave Boatman – well, probably Martin, finding a draft of breeze up the Port side, we were shown the way home in the next races.
On shore, Mark of Sarabande organised a Saturday night meal at the Inverkip Hotel (virtually the only social venue in the small village of Inverkip outside the Marina bars). It was memorable and introduced us to Scottish hospitality. At the close of the series the Marina ran a prizegiving in their fab restaurant/bar. Max and I left Sharon in charge whilst we did the boat strip and lift-out. Returning some 45 minutes later we found Sharon facing half a dozen empty glasses – previous contents, a ‘Dark and Stormy’. All courtesy of the marina/race team. We caught up as best we could. It was another memorable night, I think. Thanks, Kip Marina, Duncan, and the great race management team for a fab time.
Onwards to Tarbert and the Scottish Series
Next was Tarbert. The “Scottish Series” or the Brewin Dolphin Regatta. You can sail it from Kip, and, in fact, they race it with some huge silver pots as prizes. We didn’t because it was two weeks after Kip and we all needed to attend to business down south. It is a long road trail. Lochs extend a long way North of the Clyde and we spent the best part of a day driving the boat around. However, we stopped for smoked mussels at the Loch Fyne bar which made up for the drive. Lift-in at Tarbert is a hired crawler crane. No messing. Get in line, get airborne, get dunked, move off. But 100% efficient and part of the fee.
Tarbert is so fab I can’t really describe it adequately. It’s a small fishing harbour with the quay packed with pubs, restaurants and bars. It also is amazingly picturesque (see photo earlier on this page). Once a year it is invaded by the Regatta and the whole village, from the Mayor and the marching band to the Harbour Authority who bend over backwards to manage the huge influx of race boats to their limited facilities, combine to welcome their visitors. And they do it so well. Every morning the entire fleet was piped out of the harbour by a lone piper standing on the seaward rock. On one very memorable evening, the whole race fleet was welcomed back home by a school of some dozen dolphins who did a display within touching distance of jumps and back flips for 20 minutes before moving on to the next bunch of racers coming in. They were patently showing off. I never got around to asking the Mayor how he did that.
Racing. Ah well. If I say that I will personally think very seriously about going back to Cowes again, an event which I have competed in over 30 years in various boats, including mine, you might have a clue. Overall satisfaction, Tarbert, 100%. Enough said. Cost wise, spending £100 of diesel to drive to Tarbert alone more than compensates for the extortionate entry, craning and mooring fees of nearer Cowes. Accommodation, well, no contest. A shared house in Cowes is now £35.00 a head a night. (OK, you can camp, and I have, but it is an awkward option). In Tarbert, we paid an embarrassingly small amount to a wonderful couple who were part of the race management team to have a flat in their house and look after our children, Max and Camille, during the race event and after that when Sharon and I went cruising and the kids had to study for A levels. Thank you so much, Ian and Millicent. (Ian and Millicent’s house in Tarbert) And Ian later drove my tow rig to Helensburgh, saving me another 100 mile back-trek to recover it. Cheers, Ian, another example of the huge hospitality we received on our tour.
On the race course, again it’s windward/leewards. But they do it very well. The race management team set courses with buoys in a min depth of 100 metres and often in 200 metres plus. How do they do it? Well, as far as I could see, they set the windward mark very carefully. Then they set the pin mark for the start. Before the start, they adjust the position on the Committee Boat to the bias – it never anchors. Normally, the Race Officer sets the CM to give a slight Starboard tack bias, to save him grief. He holds station for the run up to the start. We had no recall starts. Enough said. Sailing off Tarbert is spectacular scenery because we were further up the Firth of Clyde than Kip. We were looking at big hills, close to, with views to die for. In between races, we slid over to either shore to ogle the millionaire properties with lawns down to the beach. Max worked out that, if we owned one, he could launch his Laser down the lawn from the bedroom, jump in and hit the water at 6knts if the wind was ok. Whilst ‘cruising’ between races we were entertained with chat on the VHF on topics ranging from Accrington Stanley FC (it’s amazing the amount of vicarious knowledge a 350 boat fleet can assemble about a minor football club in 30 minutes) to a raffle on the amount of vodka one of the race officers had consumed since Thursday. The fleet settled on six bottles, which, apparently, was very close to the truth. That’s the spirit of Tarbert. I highly recommend it to you all.
I hope that gives you a flavour of the atmosphere of the whole event. There were many more individual acts of hospitality and kindness that our crew received. The myths of the Scots being a dour and somewhat thrifty people were completely dispelled. And, as it happened, the other myth about Scotland being wet and cold, or very wet and very cold, also didn’t happen because we all started our tans there.
Cruising in the Kyles
Helensburgh was the venue for the Sonata National Champs, and, actually, the reason we went up there in the first place. It’s back up the Clyde from Tarbert, on the North shore, about 8 hours sail. Sharon and I decided to cruise it around something called the ‘Kyles’. We spent three glorious days on passage to get there. Fab scenery, wildlife, submarines, rocks and pubs ashore were just part of the experience.
We arrived Thursday evening to be greeted by Neil of the Helensburgh YC in his RIB because he had lent us his HYC mooring for the week before the champs whilst we beat it back down south. Ta Neil.
Back up by train/car, the BFG race crew assembled for the big event. The tow rig was there, courtesy Ian of Tarbert, so we had all the tools, battery chargers, etc that you need to campaign a race boat away from home. The boat was tuned (well, we thought so) and so were the crew. Windward leewards again, but we knew that, because that is the Sonata Champs formula. For us the results were some ok, some not so. (we were provided with an excuse by the locals involving some deep dredging in the channel we were racing over for the subs which altered the tide pattern). Ah so! Canny lot, the Scots. We were again impressed with the professionalism of the local Race Management Team who, without exception, set very competent courses.
The spirit of the whole Nationals can be summed up by the following VHF conversation: (which was on the day that we were doing a long distance race around the cans): ‘RIB’ (who had gone upwind up the Clyde some 2nm) to PRO “Where should I station myself to adjust the windward mark?” PRO to RIB: (after a two second pause for recollection) “this race is around navigation marks. We will not be needing your services on this occasion. Thank you. Out”. ‘RIB’ blushed suitably, and then proceed to point the fleet around all the subsequent marks which we, as visitors, probably would have had a hard time identifying across the Clyde. Thanks, ‘RIB’. For us, that was all part of the way that the race team enabled us to start and complete races and finish our champ‘s. It was a lesson in good race management.
Ashore, we had a night of whisky tasting, courtesy of a local company who owned three distilleries, each of which produced two whiskies. We were presented with a sample glass of each. By my maths, that’s 6 whiskies. Later, we were asked which one we most appreciated. Mine was the Tobermoray. I can’t remember much after that because I re-sampled my favourite several times. I can remember waking up the next morning with exactly the same amount of cash in my wallet as I had started with the previous evening.
We also had a fab ‘end of champs’ dinner, courtesy of the ladies of the HYC – fab meal.
Helensburgh is a town with lots of opportunities to enjoy, including, apparently, a night life. Ask Max or Camille for details.
We ended the Champs having dropped five clicks from last year’s Poole place – so not a great result for us – but taking away a whole new experience of sailing in a wonderful place and meeting a whole new bunch of like-minded bods who entertained and looked after us brilliantly. Thanks, all of you.
Stopping-off at Whitby
And, just to finish it off, we towed the boat to Whitby for the Sonata Northerns. (Well, it’s half way back)! Driving down into Whitby, which is another very pretty place, we were greeted with a roundabout which featured a sailing boat model, emblazoned, just for this weekend, with a Sonata sail logo. We laughed and clapped. Later, I had to send an apology and a donation cheque from The Sonata Association to ‘Whitby in Bloom’ whose lady president was much upset by the local Sonata’s use of her boat model. I think we have smoothed it out.
Only a weekend’s racing. Saturday we went out of the quite narrow harbour entrance to be greeted by big rolling seas and a 15-18knt breeze. We had a ball, surfing – 11knts on our (probably) lying speedo. Beats the little steep things we get in the Medway. Sunday, little or no wind. Such is NE England racing. Whitby is lovely. Lots of Bram Stoker, Dracula, if that’s your bag. Otherwise, restaurants in spades and big on fish and chips like you have never before tasted. Whitby Yacht Club is lovely and, again, all self-help food and bar makes for very inexpensive evenings. I am so glad I read the Whitby Gazette’s explanation about the design of the new facilities block on the quay otherwise I would have mistaken it for a pile of bricks. (If you’re not there, or local, forget it). But the rest of Whitby, the local Sonata crews and the Club is fab too.
Facts and figures
And so, back home. Some stats that might help:
- We drove 1400 miles with the boat on the back, including some serious hills in Scotland and back to Whitby. With the right rig, no problem. It’s a big 4×4 and a low, light trailer (thanks to Outsider, whose trailer we borrowed). We did the major ‘up’ tow to Carlisle in 8 hours and on to Kip in 4 hours after a rest. All the other tows were in daylight. We can tow at a good speed, thus pacing the artics or slipstreaming them as we prefer. Motorway facilities are crap. Get off to eat or rest.
- In between events we used a mix of train and small car transport to get us back to the North. Book in advance and Virgin Trains are good value to Glasgow. Air is another option. Four-up, it’s hard to beat a small, economic car. We never spent more than £40 a head to get to Scotland, and often much less.
- Dumping the boat at various places in-between events was easy. Sometimes cheap, sometimes, nothing.
- For events, we paid between £40 (Kip) to £130 (Tarbert – and that should have been £100 – I entered late). Nationals were £100.
- Sharon and I had a couple of ‘lux’ nights in a B&B. £40 – £60 a night inc breakfast.
- My truck is valued at £1500. It’s a 15 yr old diesel turbo with over 220,000 miles on the clock. I paid £180 to get it serviced and roadworthy for the trip. My conclusion is that Sonata road trips can be pretty cheap. The Northern guys think nothing of driving Scotland – Windermere – NE Coast – Ireland (and the Irish, the reverse). It is a different mentality to MYC. We are all pretty comfy racing another 18 boats on home waters every Saturday. When you live in Edinburgh, your options for more competitive racing devolve to sticking your boat on a trailer and doing the rounds. It’s not necessarily better, it’s different. And what they gain is the huge experience of racing different waters and different people constantly. Patently, it works for their competitiveness, because they beat us very competently.
Just do it!
Would we do it again? Oh yes. Compared with, say, Cowes, it is so much better, and, cheaper, despite the distance.
And probably, next year, ie 2011. You are welcome to join us.