Race day 5 and a return to both one longer race each day and more classic winter series conditions: wind, rain, cold and wet......oops, except the wind didnt turn up for the start despite the forecast earlier in the week promising a blast. Each day the forecast for Sunday had been reducing from 25 knots+ to eventually end up being 5 knot Northerly building to a 12 knots NW in the early afternoon. At the scheduled start we had 4 knots NE dropping away to 2 knots which at least gave us time to have another cup of tea as the fleet drifted around under postponement.
Eventually the wind filled in from the North and the race committee announced the courses with two big surprises. First, they were going to combine the starts from the normal six down to three, the Sigma 38s were going to be sharing the line with IRC 3 & 4. Secondly, the course was set up for a NE (or being charitable a light Northerly with lots of East going tide) with every sausage on the same axis and every class sailing the same course. I dont often criticise race officers as I know it is a tough job and hindsight is a wonderful thing, but this looked horrible from the outset. HWS normally have a high standard of race management, in the past I have looked at courses in admiration as they have cascaded to allow for strong tide or the direction of the beats have changed through the race to anticipate a shifting breeze. None of this today though and the all too predictably backing wind turned the race into a processional series of one tack reaches and fetches - effectively ending the race as a competition at the first windward mark.
That first beat was fun though, there was 1.5 knots of East going tide running which would be less at the windward mark close to the mainland shore. So the wind strategy said go left to chase the forecast backing wind shift, but the tidal strategy said go right towards the shallow water we decided to try to keep to the left of the fleet which we expected to tack onto port early (as most boats in earlier starts had) but not go out on a limb. The start was bias to the left pin end, but with 3 times the usual number of boats on the line we were expecting a scrum at the buoy so went for clear air one third of the way up from the pin. In the event, the line was not as busy as expected - I think because the wind had softened from 10 to 7 knots at the start so many boats, including us, did not make it up to the line as quickly as anticipated - but we were off in clear air all be it 4 lengths shy of the line handing the advantage to Festina, Rapscallion and, I think, Light who got better starts.
Most boats tacked off almost immediately onto port but we thought there was a starboard lift off the line so we hung on for a bit, then we saw more breeze on the left so we hung on for a bit more until we were into it before tacking onto port to go with the fleet towards the tidal relief of the mainland shore. By now the boats on the right were looking pants and had started to tack back across to the breeze on the left, we crossed all the Sigma 38s except Festina who were less than a boat length ahead. Two thirds of the way down the beat was the next big decision, we were now back on a small port header but we could see the boats from previous starts on a big port lift inshore should we carry on to pick up the bigger port lift or assume it was a wind bend along the shore which means we should tack now and take the port lift later as we approached the windward mark? The extra consideration was that if we tacked now we would cross ahead of Festina and be able to protect the left. We tacked but Festina tacked simultaneously stopping us from closing down the gap between us. In the event the port lift into the buoy was an oscillation and had evaporated by the time we tacked back towards the starboard layline. Rapscallion gained by going right and was heading into the windward mark on a starboard lift, we had to duck them as well as an X332 to make sure we had a safe layline into the buoy which was going to busy with so many boats sailing the same course. Festina, who had been alongside us, opted to tack under Rapscallion for a minute it looked like Rapscallion would sail over them but they did a great job in hanging onto their boatspeed before pointing up to shut out Rapscallion and round clear ahead (despite having to make a big alteration of course to avoid an IRC 4 boat coming into the buoy on port).
The spinnaker leg started as a broad reach but ended as a close reach as the wind continued to back and that was about it, subsequent beats were one tack fetches and the downwind legs were too tight to fly the spinnaker as the breeze increased peaking at around 20 knots. Shame as we were looking forward to having a crack at Rapscallion and Festina during the rest of the race but there was no way to overtake now unless the boats ahead made a big mistake all credit to them though for being in front at the first windward mark.
As all boats on Sunday sailed the same course it is interesting to calculate how Sigma 38s would have done on handicap against other classes. Of course, the two starts ahead spent longer sailing in lighter Northerly wind before it backed and increased but the starts were only 5 minutes apart so as good a chance to compare as we are likely to get in the winter series. Crunching the numbers shows that Festina on handicap would have been first in every other class except IRC 1 & 4 where they would have been pipped into 2nd place. Impressive stuff and shows that Sigma 38s have nothing to fear in a handicap race at least on a reaching course!