by Anton Saxton

The Ship-in-a-Bottle Regatta, sponsored by our local London Inn (in sunny Shaldon), is supposed to be the first warm(ish) weather regatta of the year for our club. Our last regatta, ‘Breaking-the-Ice’, in the depth of darkest January literally saw sailors breaking the ice off their dinghy covers. So it came as a complete surprise to all that the weather, for a Bank Holiday weekend, was actually what it is supposed to be…warm.


Yet while the rest of the population of Devon dashed for the beach under a cloudless blue sky, our three day regatta started on Saturday morning with a bunch of glum-looking sailors milling around the slipway and glancing enviously at the rowers and swans as they glided over a glassy Teign estuary. There was no wind, and for sailing this can sometimes pose something of a conundrum. Rather like a ship in a bottle, which by the way is the name of this regatta because the winner’s trophy is literally a, mmmm, ship-in-a-bottle and has been used every year at the club since something like 1952.

Under a cloud of pessimism, even the galley volunteers (who are generally the most cheerful) were wondering if the BBQ booty from our Sainsbury’s donated voucher was going to go to waste. So it was no surprise when one boat crew packed up and left – probably for the beach. But for the rest of these hardy all-year, all-weather sailors (the advantage of our location on the estuary), they stuck it out and waited… and prayed (or were they swearing quietly? I couldn’t be sure).

Eventually, their patience and (possible) prayers paid off. Race officer and ex RAF man, Don Harrison gave the command that the race was on, as the sea breeze he had predicted would come, came. All that was missing was the vigorous ringing of a big brass bell, with the inscribed words ‘when you hear the bell, launch like hell’. I have never seen so many boats slip from the slipway so quickly. The Ship-in-a bottle Regatta was underway.
The two races of the first day were won by James Stevenson who actually went on to win the whole regatta (but pretend you didn’t read this now, otherwise it will ruin the surprise at the end). This is despite the two general recalls in the second race – which was due to the tide having turned sharply (outrageous, how dare it) and the boats were being carried over the line too early due to the strength of the tide. Apparently this is just a polite way of saying that most of the sailors got caught out and misjudged the tide. So third time lucky, the un-phased Don Harrison was happy that the day’s racing went smoothly with no big wind shifts.
By day 3, despite relaxed looking race officer, Peter Nottingham being entertained by the sailing from the comfort of his deckchair, the intensity of the competition on the water was getting as hot as the weather. James Stevenson and Ray Potter who had each won a race in the previous day went head to head (that may sound like a nautical term, but is not intended to be one). As James, (who you are pretending to not know that he ended up winning the Regatta) said ‘I was not interested in getting a good start, but rather was keen to not let Ray win either race and therefore the whole series! I got to windward of Ray in an attempt to muck up Ray’s start, but in doing so mucked up my own start.’ Luckily strategy and tactics are not always taken too seriously at TCYC.
In an attempt to crack the conundrum as to how James won the series despite the fierce competition, he told me that by chance, halfway up the beat, he realised that the some of other boats that had tucked themselves into the southern shore were getting a massive lift. So he took a gamble and joined them, and this turned out to give him a definite advantage. Conundrum cracked.
The Teign estuary, without question, is the most beautiful location in the world to sail dinghies (that will put the cat among the pigeons) but it does have its challenges with some strange wind effects. That is, unless the wind is a sea breeze coming directly upriver from the East and veering only slightly towards the NE and holding at a steady 10mph. Which is exactly what it did – for all three days of the regatta. That and using the same triangular course on each day made for fast, consistent and smooth sailing, as Ray Potter (who came 3rd) said ‘boat speed became more important than local knowledge, which resulted in a lot of very close sailing – with some of the races the lead boats being only 2 seconds apart’.
So the biggest conundrum of the weekend was not how they got that ship into the bottle (everyone knows that, don’t they?), but how come the conditions for a Bank Holiday and a Regatta combined were perfect? The result was that no one was able to mutter the usual phrase ‘just typical’ had there been no wind or wind and lots of bank holiday rain. This was one of those occasions when all we had left to talk about was how perfect everything was. The weather, the wind, the racing, the BBQ and good company of jolly sailors and families in the sunshine afterwards.