Some sailors crave the solitude of open waters with the wind at their back and the sun burning brightly. Others thrive on the intensity of close-quarters, round-the-buoys racing action. Its no secret that our sport makes room for a broad range of tastes and interests. Cached somewhere at the performance end of the spectrum is the sub-genre of speed sailing, and if any singular location serves as the epicenter of this pursuit its Weymouth on the south coast of England.
Local legend holds that Weymouths popularity as a seaside destination for Britons was secured late in the 18th century when King George III came seeking a cure to what hed been told was a nervous disorder. Bathing in the waters here soothed the king, and the royals began making the trek several times a year after that. These days its a distinctly different nervous disorder that has prompted a cadre of dedicated sailors to migrate to this venerable port in the early fall each year, bringing with them all manner of speed-sailing contraptions. Yes, the need for speed is a powerful force, and this year it has gripped the imaginations of at least 36 contestants bent on ratcheting up the sailing sped record.
According to Nick Povey, Robert Downhill, and Bob Spagnoletti, the volunteer triumvirate that organizes this annual gathering, there are two records at stakethe outright speed sailing record owned by Lindsay Cunninghams Yellow Pages Endeavour (46.52 knots) and the local Portland record of 36 knots, set by Tim Colemans Crossbow in 1980. Apart from a smattering of personal bests, their gathering hasnt turned up a new record in some time, but the excitement at Speed Week grew to an early crescendo on Monday when sailboard contestant Nick Beaney broke the 35-knot barrier, logging a top speed of 35.22 knots. The action took place during one of 33 runs that Beaney attempted that day, most of which topped 30 knots. Beaney was sailing a custom speed board with a seven square meter sail, the beneficiary of 25-knot winds that often gusted to 30.
Beaneys antics out on Portland Harbour didnt produce the only excitement. "Also of particular note," explained Povey, "was Chris Calthrop's kite board runs. He never had a completely controlled run over the entire 200 meters and yet he achieved runs of 33 knots. At times he must have been well in excess of 40 knots." Povey explained that at the end of his best run Calthrop was dragged through the water for several meters. "Clearly a good run would have been faster still."
Povey and his partners, along with various volunteers, spend the week monitoring speeds on two courses. Theres a short course (about 200 meters) adjacent the beach) and a 500 meter course further out on the harbor. On the longer course, two boats are stationed at either end with the organizers having used a laser range finder to establish the course distance. Timing devices aboard both boats are linked via radio, and once the green flag goes up, sailors are free to take runs down the course at 10-second intervals. Competitors can see the printed results of their runs shortly afterward, along with a sailing speed to wind speed ratio in case theyd like to modify their technique in an attempt to achieve greater speed.
As you might expect, Weymouth is a notoriously windy location, a regular destination for recreational sailors and windsurfers in particular. Though breeze was forecast for the entire week, on Tuesday, the winds abated, registering between the high teens and low 20-knot range across the harbor, meaning the top run of the day barely exceeded 30 knots. It's a disappointment for this unique crowd of sailors, sure, but its not just the mere action on the water that draws them here. Speed Week also serves as a kind of nexusan unofficial conference of speed sailors if you willallowing its participants to interact and share opinions on design trends and equipment innovations. Conjure an aquatic soapbox derby whose participants exhibit the animated devotion of Star Trek conventioneers and youll get an accurate idea of the waterside scene here.
"The slipways seem to have as many earnest discussions about the esoterics of sailboat design as there are boats," said an enthusiastic Povey. "Generally there is a great atmosphere here with evening social events and much talk of the days activities and future plans." And its not just the players who are sharing their ideas says Povey. Numerous onlookersinventors or boat tinkerersdrop by to offer their two cents about the best approach to achieving speed under sail
Compared to recent editions of Speed Week, the on-the-water results thus this week far have been pretty encouraging. "Its hard to get just the right conditions," explains Povey. But if any place can provide ideal speed sailing its Portland Harbour, which is bounded on its southwestern side (the direction from which the prevailing wind blows) by Chesil Bank, a huge natural breakwater that stops the waves but not the wind. Within the harbor the water remains mostly smooth as the wind blasts across.
With a strict emphasis on speed, another unique aspect about Weymouth Speed Week is that there are no restrictions. Povey and his partners believe that "the lack of rules for determining seaworthiness, controllability, or practicality provides the ideal proving ground for both experts and dreamers to build the type of boats, which, but for Weymouth Speed Week, would never see the light of day." Boats, boards, and all sorts of contraptionsas long as theyre sail-poweredparticipants are encouraged to bring them.
The event's open policy fosters a broad range of experimentation, as evidenced by the diverse nature of the entries. And you never know where the next breakthrough in the sport might come from; the next Olin Stephens just might be lurking among this varied group of nonconformists. "Most of these types are sailors first," explains Povey of the competitors, "but theyre not conventional." From where I stand, thats OK. In fact its good news.
For more information about the action at Weymouth Speed Week, and updated results, log on to the events website at www.speedsailing.com.
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