The unusual, distinctive look of the Redwing fleet always makes for a talking point at Cowes Week. Their low, classic hull lines combine with a very high aspect mainsail to create a hybrid look ¬– the result is a quirky, enchanting mix of a dragon and an A-Class catamaran.
I joined Joe Robertson and his sister, Bel, guiltily replacing their mother Annie, for a race aboard the family’s Bembridge Redwing Red Gauntlet II.
I remember our former editor describing a sail aboard a Redwing at Cowes Week and how he had to spend the race constantly bailing. The sea state might have been calm for our day aboard Red Gauntlet II this week, but the sheet rain soon filled our bilges instead.
And it was an unusual race day for the Redwing crews as we started and finished with paddles in hand. We began by short-tacking and paddling up the Medina River, trying to fight the tide to make the startline east of Cowes. And we ended with a shortened course finish as the wind died out completely, leaving a long paddle home.
But it was all worth it aboard Red Gauntlet II for our start and the early part of the race – where helmsman Joe Robertson deftly judged our time and distance to the line against a fierce westerly tide, and we were first off the line. Although the other Redwings soon came at us, including long-time class leader Edmund Peel in Quail, we were still holding second place after the third mark.
Joe Robertson is only 31, yet is the class secretary and has been sailing Redwings for 16 years – eight as crew and eight as helm. What’s the attraction for someone of his age?
“There is still so much to learn to get the best out of the boat in all conditions.”
By this Joe is referring to the distinctive and unusual rig. The very high aspect mainsail stems from the class rules that allow for experimental rigs.
“An experimental rig makes it a fun boat to sail,” says Joe, “and one you can learn a lot from.”
The Bembridge Redwing is a classic meter design, a class that dates back to 1897. Although there have been three incarnations of the hull design, today the 47 strong one-design fleet (35 in Bembridge, 12 in Poole) all share the 1935 Charles Nicholson design.
The 28ft Redwing draws just 3ft 3ins in order to be shoal friendly around the ledges off Bembridge, and they are restricted to having just 200ft2 of sail area. Allowance for an experimental rig with a defined sail area has inspired plenty of weird and wonderful rig types. Uffa Fox designed a narrow, tall Bermudan rig in 1937-8 for example, and both a revolving unstayed mast and a swing rig have been tried.
I was particularly struck by just how much you can bend the mast. Joe had a bank of controls to hand aside the mainsheet to make all sorts of rig adjustments via pulley systems. By pulling on the running backstay or checkstay for example he could instantly change the draught of the mainsail. Even the mast foot sits on a track, adjusted via block and tackle so again the helmsman can adjust its placement fore or aft.
Following our strong start, a few Redwings sailed through us as the breeze became fickle in the latter stages. But I take heart in the words of Joe’s mother Annie Robertson after we stepped ashore: “there are a 100 ways to lose a race, but no one ever listens to your reasons why!”
Joe and Bel always sail together as a team, sometimes with their mother Annie, who bought the boat nine years ago. Joe explained how the family had an original 30s built Redwing that his grandparents bought in 1951. But that was replaced nine years ago with this fibreglass version, sail number 24, from the eighties.
Family sailing is strong in the class, indeed many of the current Redwing fleet have been passed down through generations.
“There is some inevitability of boats being passed down through families, but because it’s a development class, the Redwings move with the times,” says Joe. In latter years (since the Eighties) this has involved the likes of an up/down pole on the mast for quickly poling-out the small headsail, running backstays, a self-tacking jib and a sliding mast foot base.
Many of these updates were thanks to Vernon Stratton, an Olympic sailor, considered to be the best Redwing sailor, and one who experimented a lot with Redwing rigs in the Eighties.
Quail is the current in form boat. Although her helmsman Edmund Peel hasn’t sailed her at every event, he has not been beaten at Cowes Week since 1999. He is attracted to the fact that is a family run class that restricts it from becoming an arms race.
And Peel likes the fact that it is easy for kids to join in and crew too. “The class is in good fettle,” Peel told me after our race. “The top of the fleet is very competitive now, yet it is still friendly with advice passed between boats. And you’ve got to have a brain to sail them – sometimes they can be over-complicated.”
The Redwings remain at the heart of the White Group at Cowes Week. It’s a friendly, inviting class and I can now second Joe’s words that there is still much to be learnt from these elegant one-designs.