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Experience at the Classic

Blue Leopard – A personal perspective by John Duffy

Designed by Jack Giles, Blue Leopard was built in Littlehampton, U.K. in 1963. The brief was to produce a gentleman’s yacht with a combination of unique features, which would make her lightweight, fast and easily handled by a small crew. With a double diagonal planked hull and an aluminium deck and superstructure, for her years she was a triumph in yacht design, the perfect blend of sail and power, capable of astonishing speed under power yet equally fast under sail. At 112 feet she has a surprisingly narrow beam of 19 foot. The twin Rolls Royce diesels are capable of taking her to almost the same speed under power as under sail.

Friends from the U.K., Rob & Amanda Springate who were passing through Antigua on the Blue Water Rally at Christmas but are still here, know the owner of Blue Leopard and e-mailed him to see if he was doing the Classic Regatta. He wasn’t, but, effectively, gave them a free charter of the boat. I am invited along as I know the Racing Rules.

Skipper Jock Hamilton has never raced nor have any of the crew, half of whom have been picked up from the dock. It’s quite an international crew: Jock, obviously Scots, a French girl more interested in her suntan, nails and Sony walkman, Jaffrey, a young Malay who joined the boat two years ago in Malaya, a young Spaniard with an unpronounceable name who gets called George and an English girl called Emma (very good at producing sandwiches). The boat is appalling badly laid out for racing with most of the work including the mainsheet having to be done from the foredeck. She is a cutter-rigged ketch with power winches and do you need them. Unfortunately, unless the port engine is running you can only operate one winch at a time and then only at half speed.

We go out on the Thursday to get some practice some sail handling, tacks and gybes. This is the only boat I have ever been on which gybes more easily than it tacks. We hoist and drop the mizzen staysail which is made from heavy duty spinnaker material, shaped like a jib and goes up sideways. Rob and I cannot get our heads around this one. Also, you can’t tack or gybe it so it has to be dropped and re-hoisted. I helm the boat for a while and you can’t see anything forward because of the large pilot house. I try leaning out to leeward to see the sails but the wheel is not large enough and there is nowhere to sit properly. Jock steers by standing on the seat leaning down, monkey like, to reach the wheel. It can’t be comfortable. I despair of us obtaining any results and, six hours later, practice over, I feel as though I have I have been tumbled in a concrete mixer added to which, not expecting to be out so long, I didn’t put on any sun cream and my forehead is somewhat burnt.

As we have been out so long I say I can’t make Friday’s practice as I have to catch up with a couple of meetings I had hoped to fit into today.

Race 1 – Saturday.

At the boat by eight thirty and we untie a little after nine. There have been two additions to the crew, a New Zealand girl who has a little sailing experience and a Swiss/American with a Spanish name. Our start is not until ten forty five and we have plenty of time to prepare, which is just as well since it takes over half an hour to get the sails up. There are fifty-five boats taking part in five different starts. We are the last start and amongst the big boats.

This is the most peculiar regatta in which I have ever taken part. The start is deliberately on port and any boat sailing in the vicinity of the start area on starboard will be considered sailing dangerously. Furthermore, although we are in a class we are not starting in class order but in groups of handicaps so the flag we are wearing indicates our start group not our class. This means that unless we can spot the boat name we have no idea who is in our class and who we are mainly racing against.

Skipper Jock, like every boat skipper in the fleet wants to start at the pin end away from the Committee Boat. The start line is about half a mile long and, theoretically, the pin end is closer to the first mark which is four miles away. As I am on board as the one who knows the rules the best and the most experienced racer, in effect, I am doing tactics. Rob’s up on the bow calling trim and generally running the working end of the boat. I manage to persuade Jock that the most stupid thing we could do is start at the pin end. Not only would we have around fifty boats in front of us giving us dirty air, the wind is very light and if it’s going to fill it will fill from the south east and suggest we head in that direction even though it is taking us away from a direct line to the first mark. The Committee boat is on the east end of the line.

Fortunately, I am right and after about half an hour the wind begins to fill in and we get it first (apart from one boat from an earlier start which has also headed south east). Before too long we have overtaken most of the fleet, many of which are still not moving and some of which started three quarters of an hour ahead of us. We hold our advantage around the course overtaking more boats as we go and rigorously protecting our windward, clean air, position. We are ninth on the water at the finish and every boat in front of us has a higher handicap. We receive a gun as being first over the water in our class. Later we discover we are first on handicap in our class and fourth overall in the regatta. Blue Leopard has never won a race before. Jock he gets very drunk.

Race 2 – Sunday.

Conditions are completely different today. The wind is quite strong and there are squalls everywhere. My landlord and local yacht measurer, Sandy Mair, another Scotsman, has joined us and is helping out up front. Yet again, everyone starts at the pin end and we have a near perfect start by the Committee Boat, however, it is blowing over twenty five knots and the rain is lashing down and the jacket I brought and needed yesterday is safely tucked up at home.

The fleet is much more spread out as everyone has wind but keeping to our policy of clear air and being windward boat we overtake a large portion of the fleet. I am beginning to think that there are not many racers amongst the classic yachts when we make the most enormous screw-up. We hoist the pole on the wrong side. The poles on this boat (it has two) are about twenty-five feet long and weigh half a ton. They have to be cranked down the mast and the outer end lifted by a power winch. We have to live with our error as it will take too much time to alter. We lose quite a lot of speed and then have a minor port/starboard incident (we are on port) but, in reality, we are not the problem, another boat is, but the incident interferes with our course to the next mark. There are a couple more reaching legs followed by a long beat where we make the mistake of tacking too often which costs us time.

On one leg we are using the mizzen staysail and we have rigged it incorrectly so when it comes down we don’t have a spare winch for the halyard. I try to control the halyard on the sheet winch but there is too much pressure and my left forefinger is pulled into the winch slicing the knuckle through to the bone.

The next mistake is purely mine. I call for tack for the finish. In any of the boats I have owned we would have over stood the finish line by a long way. Not Blue Leopard. She tacks though about one hundred and ten degrees and we are not going to make the line so I suggest we go right up to the pin end of the line (different from the start pin end and much closer to the Committee Boat) and tack over. Jock appears to get a bit concerned by the other boats milling around the line and tacks too soon. In order to ensure we do not miss the line again Jock stands on despite me saying we will make it easily. Maybe his confidence in me has diminished somewhat. When he comes to tack he has left it too late and we can’t cross the line without hitting the Committee Boat and have to gybe around to finish.

We still get a gun as first across the line in our class and, later we find we are second in class on handicap by six minutes and, today, tenth overall in the regatta. We lost far more than six minutes by our various mistakes although Jock blames himself for the finish and I tell him I reckon it cost us only two minutes. My mistake cost about the same and Rob can take his portion of the blame for another two minutes with the pole going up on the wrong side.

Race 3 – Monday.

Sandy is supposed to turn up again but doesn’t. An American girl appears on the dock and asks if we have any space. I tell Jock to ask her what she has done. She has done everything. I very much doubt it. Given the choice I would have left her standing on the dock and it would have been the right decision. She is not at all experienced and is more of a liability to herself, the boat and other crew.

Having been successful with our Committee Boat end starts we decide to go for it again only this time a couple of other boats in our fleet decide to copy us. All three of us are slightly early and the other two boats which are in front of us and to windward bear away down the line. It is quite windy and I feel the best thing we can do is luff up and slow down. Jock is concerned about not being able to power up again but I am more concerned not to lose our clear air position. Jock does as I suggest and at thirty seconds to go I tell him to bear away and power up. I call for the sails to be trimmed in and we hit the line fast just beneath the Committee Boat with not another boat near us. It’s a rather boring course being five mile fetch followed by a five mile beam reach, repeated.

Because we have only a tack or a gybe at each end we are able to concentrate on sail trim and how to handle the boats we are overtaking. The odd one will try to take us up but most just let us ride over the top of them. I advise Jock on which ones to duck and which we can safely climb over. We duck one small boat which calls out thanks, little realizing that we had seen that they intended to push us all over the ocean so we intimidated them into luffing up and then dived under their stern.

While we are sailing, the owner telephones from the U.K. on the Satphone. Amanda tells him that we were first and second on the previous two days. He presumes that this means on the water, which we should be as the fastest boat in our class. He is staggered and delighted when she tells him that we were first on the water on both days and our first and second are handicap results.

As we approach the finish line there are only four boats in front of us, three of which are on a different course so not going through the finish line just yet and the fourth was over the line at the start, so we are the lead boat and get line honours on the whole fleet. We are comfortably first in our class on the water and on handicap and second on handicap, by thirty seconds overall. We have a small chance of being in the top three overall but our tenth place overall yesterday will probably preclude us.

We are having a crew dinner this evening and the American asks if she may join us. Jock politely declines. The restaurant eventually throws us out when they want to close.

Prize giving is on Tuesday and just about every boat receives something which doesn’t diminish our pleasure in our first place. We never do find out our overall position but then Classic yacht racing does seem to be a much more gentlemanly affair than what I am used to.

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