One of the great joys for those of us who live in the sailing world is the fact that you can count on the existence of all manner of characters to populate the fringes of this sport. There are the colorful do-it-yourself cruising sailors who accelerate the evolution of gear by taking their own swipe at what works on a boat, and what doesn't. And there are the dyed-in-the-wool competitive sailors who tinker endlessly with their equipment to squeeze the last ounce of performance from their boats. Somewhere in the middle of these two camps is a hybrid species that draws from both gene pools, and it's this type of sailor you're apt to see in Weymouth on the south coast of England during the last week of September each year. He or she isn't here for the fish and chips. No, the draw for this sailor is the annual celebration of speed under sail that goes by the humble name of Speed Week.
Each year for a week in late September and early October, Portland Harbor to the south of Weymouth becomes the adoptive home for an eclectic array of speed-seeking sailing craft and their creators. These speed machines range from custom-rendered sailboards with foiling fins to home-built multihulls with canting rigs. Often these vessels carry names as unique as their appearance: Flash Back, Vari Scari, and Jelly-Fish Foiler to name a few. As the days trickle by during Speed Week, the participants pilot their unusual craft across the protected waters of the harbor in what seems like an endless series of runs, each endeavoring to up their time on a pre-set, 500-meter course. Ultimately these sailors are chasing speed under sail, but in the process they're also serving to animate and distinguish our sport in a way few other aspects of sailing can or do.
So who are these speed freaks? One is Nick Povey. Also one of the organizers of Speed Week, Povey is a business consultant, father of three, and an avid boardsailor who volunteers his time to ensure that there's place where like-minded sailors can get together and pursue their form of the sport. He also helps to make sure that their participation can be quantified in terms of hard numbers by sophisticated timing devices.
“Speed Week is organized and financed by enthusiastic volunteers,” explains Povey. “The people who attend cover a very broad spectrum. Several are very successful and talented engineers who are experts in their chosen field. Some are very wealthy and come to enjoy the excitement and challenge, some are very talented sailors, and some are sponsored professionals, and still others have very little in the way of funding, but make up for this by sheer determination.”
Among the broad spectrum that Povey describes is Bob Downhill, a long time speed-sailing enthusiast who has been integral in running the event for the last decade and has attended almost every edition of the event. Downhill is an active member of the Amateur Yacht Research Society, which also assists in organizing Speed Week. Povey credits Downhill with reviving the event after it died in the mid ‘80s when the sponsorship dollars dried up.
As he has been in previous years, Downhill remains a fixture along the beach at Portland Harbor. In customary fashion, last year he brought his novel, aluminum tripod craft to the event a sort of slewed half spider powered by a canted rig. Although Downhill's unusual creation didn't set any new speed records, it did draw a lot of attention.
Over the years, Speed Week has ingrained itself into the collective consciousness of those who thrill to this unique discipline. Acknowledged milestones include Tim Colman's Crossbow II hitting 36 knots at Weymouth in 1980, a record that stood for over a decade. And the outright top speed ever achieved at Speed Week occurred in 2000 when Richard Jones unofficially recorded over 37 knots on his board during a practice run. Last year, boardsailor Nick Beaney walked away with the top accolades for hitting 35.22 knots.
All of this fun is available for a mere 120 British pounds (roughly $186.00), a little less if you're riding on a board. But those aren't the only costs associated with speed sailing, as one of the professionals that Povey mentions learned last year. Chris Calthrop set a world kitesurfing speed record at Speed Week last year (33.38 knots), and then went on to nearly end his sailing career in a spectacular crash. It was a squally day with the winds recording gusts up to 45 knots. Calthrop remembers having such an easy time of setting that record, that he says he figured 40 knots was within reach, so he decided to “go all out.” He says when he got up to 35 knots, he started to lose the rail as the board was accelerating out of control. Calthrop nose-dived to avoid an idle boardsailor near the end of the course and he wound up in the hospital, needing reconstructive surgery on his face.
Povey says that some 50 participants are expected to attend Speed Week this year. That's not an earth-shattering number for an event that's been in existence since 1972, however, this isn't an event that should be measured in the number of participants, but in the intensity of their commitment. Though the event may have been born as a way of laying to rest the extravagant claims of yachtsmen regarding the prowess of their vessels, it exists now as public forum for anyone to obtain accurate information regarding the speed of their designs. And that's the beauty of Speed Week; there are essentially no rules. The participants don't have to meet minimums for seaworthiness or controllability, or anything, which makes this event the ideal proving ground for both experts and dreamers to build whatever kind of vessel they fancy. Without Speed Week, it's certain that the bulk of us would never see boats like those that will populate the shores of Weymouth next week. And who knows, a few of the ideas that are fostered here might just someday play a role for mainstream sailors.
To have a look at the official times from this year's Speed Week, along with some interesting images, log on to the following website: www.speedsailing.com/default.htm.
Chasing the Record
Then there's the Texas-based group, which has labeled its project “Dynawing,” that is also intent grabbing some sailing speed glory for themselves. This team stages its attempts on the outright speed record on what they call The Ditch near South Padre Island on the Texas coast. Led by Peter Bell, this contingent says it will be back at work in October, hoping to establish a new record aboard a hydrofoil-borne board powered by a soft wing sail (see photo above). For additional information and photos, log on to www.dynawing.com/speedsailing.
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