The forecasts had been read. The tradition was quoted by those with experience of these things: ‘Strong, strong, light’. All the twenty-four Moth sailors standing by Pitsford Reservoir, Northampton, knew the score: if you play the game of Moth Nationals, you sail, or you retire. And it might be a little breezy.
Never mind the Olympics. The Nationals had it all.
Epic battles. Mass casualties. Murderous crustaceans. Death of shrouds. Bomber flypasts. Wild winds. White horse waves. Fear. Bravery. Exhaustion. Elation. The full English with bottomless tea.
Early conditions were enticing: sun, space, a manageable wind. The first race of the meet – the practice race – provided a casual sail to familiarise the competitors with the layout and conditions of the lake. Hinting at the duel to come, the two-lap race, with its triangular course, was easily won by Tim Davison (892), ahead of Toby Cooper (887) and Roger Witts (890), with the rest of the fleet close behind.
After lunch, the sailors headed back up the lake for Race 1. In a gentle norwesterly, the fleet again sailed the morning’s course, quickly separating into three distinct groups: Davison and Cooper charging to the front; third through to eighth; and the rest strung out across the course. After a hard-fought battle between the two leaders, Cooper took first. Davison was close behind in second, with Richard Keefe (884) a distant third.
Overnight, the wind had increased to 11-12 mph, gusting 18 (a gale on the Moth Scale). The sky was overcast. Temperatures dropped. Race 2’s start was tight but clean, with most of the fleet on a starboard tack towards the first windward mark. By the first mark, Cooper and Davison were well ahead, leaving much of the fleet to wish that they could get close enough to be caught in their wake. Behind them, skill in handling strong winds made all the difference to race position. Places were swapped as sailors found extra speed downwind, or hesitated on the gybe. At the front, Cooper pushed Davison hard, but was unable to get ahead, with Davison coming in first. Witts’ heavy wind skills prevailed, giving him third. Race 3 was more of the same, but this time Cooper managed to get ahead of Davison, while the flypasts of a Spitfire and a Lancaster were barely noticed by the sailors battling wind and waves below.
The wind increased by Race 4. Despite the Moth-unfriendly conditions, the fleet started cleanly, with Davison and Cooper quickly showing everyone a clean pair of transoms. The wind, however, took its first victims: Tony Latham (880) took an early dip on the first windward leg, and Elaine Laverty (886) capsized at the first gybe mark. A screaming reach across the course saw the fleet fly into the next gybe mark, with some sailors opting for safety and retirement rather than concussion or capsize. On the second lap, the wind’s fury took out Ian Heywood (871) and Abby Freeley (883) when they capsized at the first gybe mark, and Gary Tompkin’s (882) attempt to continue sailing after his capsize at the leeward mark came to grief when he broke his centreboard on righting. Davison, however, kept head and control to take first ahead of Cooper, with Witts third.
Day three. The norwesterly wind had increased again. The waves on the water had gone from white horses to peaks and troughs. Boats creaked from the strain of sheeting in against the wind. There was discussion about postponing the racing, but despite the wind easily being a Swatter of Moths (at least one other class holding their Nationals on the other side of the country abandoned racing for the day), most of the competitors decided to go ahead.
Race 5, twenty-two boats crossed the line for another clean start, and the fleet took the first windward mark at speed. Davison and Cooper were well ahead of the fleet by the gybe mark, but some sailors found the run followed by the gybe too much, with a number coming a cropper, and five boats forced to retire. Cooper took first, Davison second, and Robert Paynter (839) a distant third.
Race 6 was a race of attrition. Davison found himself in trouble on the pinend of the line, forcing him around (and possibly into) the ODM and behind everyone else. It did not take him long, however, to catch and pass the fleet, and resume his battle for the championship with Cooper. Battle it was – Davison took advantage of Cooper’s capsize, but Cooper made up the distance and passed Davison on the reach. Conditions were not so kind to the rest. Of the remaining competitors, the run and first gybe mark combined to winnow the fleet, with Jonathan Twite’s (817) shroud snapping and forcing his retirement from the race. Another six sailors joined him on shore, leaving only thirteen to finish (of which, only a handful did not capsize). Davison finished ahead of Cooper, but his troublesome start caused him to retire post-race. With Davison’s retirement, Cooper was guaranteed the championship, but rules were consulted about whether it is possible to protest a retirement (the jury is still out) because he was enjoying the competition so much.
Saturday, and the last race of the championship. Calmer weather was forecast, but out on the water it was a different story. The wind was still strong and northwesterly. After consideration, the Race Officer decided to keep the previous day’s course. All the boats made a clean start, but some sailors, deciding that a leisurely decamping was better than a swim in the reservoir, retired, leaving seventeen boats out on the water. The first lap was unremarkable – strong winds, tight sails, wariness at the gybe mark – but towards the end of the second lap, the wind shifted massively. Windward became gybe, and in honour of the National to come, the wind died away to barely there. Davison was caught by the wind shift on the wrong side of the course, allowing Cooper to take the final first of the competition. Toby Smith (846) also made the most of the wind shift, coming in third ahead of Paynter.
Off the water, wounds were compared. Boats were washed down to frustrate the killer shrimp. A final lunch was eaten. Results were tallied. Thanks were given to the Race Officers and the rescue crews. Trophies were awarded:
The Bit in the Middle: Jonathan Twite (817)
First Vintage Boat: Elaine Gillingham (504)
Best performing club: Medley SC
Ladies’ Champion: Abby Freeley (883)
Veterans’ Champion: Tim Davison (892)
Third: Roger Witts (890)
Second: Tim Davison (892)
And, at the last, Toby Cooper (887): National Champion 2016.
Photos: ©British Moth Boat Association