My snapshot of an outstanding day afloat and ashore at Queen Mary SC and glimpse of the action in Weymouth
Technically Sunday’s race was just another in Queen Mary sailing club’s busy calendar, but from the moment Bart’s Bash was announced it was clear that Sunday 21 September would take on a different slant. But when Sir Ben Ainslie declared he would be racing an RS400 at the club, the entries rocketed. Everyone it seemed wanted to have a go at beating the world’s most successful Olympic sailor. But before that, everyone wanted a picture and an autograph too, particularly the hundreds of children who were racing in a wide variety of classes.
Even those that weren’t chasing for a selfie with the sailing icon seemed to be caught up in the excitement of it all. Anyone who was called Benjamin was addressed as ‘Sir Ben’ by their friends causing scores of heads to turn every time. As you moved through the bustle of people in and around the club and dinghy park, every other conversation seemed to have some reference to Ben, his boat or the picture that he had just posed for.
But the real Sir Ben wasn’t the only one signing autographs, as Finn sailor Andrew Mills who, was also sailing an RS400 for the day with his sister, enjoyed a slice of celebrity attention, adding to a day that was buzzing from the start.
Out on the water 184 boats started the first race on a course that led the fleet around the perimeter of the reservoir. In the gusty and shifty conditions there was plenty of opportunity for dramas and capsizes along with some very closely fought racing. Yet all the while the datum for most was one bright orange RS400 sailed by Ben and his girlfriend Georgie Thompson.
As we raced around in our own RS400 I too have to confess to using Ben’s boat as a datum and took mental pictures every time I had to look behind to find him in the melee astern. It was clear that these moments were not likely to last long or be repeated. But despite the attention that Ben knew he was attracting on the water, he also knew that the day was more about about taking part, celebrating the life of his close friend and simply enjoying being immersed in a club race, albeit a rather big one. It was Georgie’s first time in a dinghy, for once his competitive instinct had to come second and when ashore it was obvious that he had enjoyed himself.
“We had a great day out there today,” he said after the race. “That was Georgie’s first day in a dinghy so we took things carefully. But it was superb to see so many people of different ages and abilities racing, a real reminder of what grass roots sailing is all about. It’s great that club sailors and top professionals can race together. There can’t be many other sports where that’s possible, certainly on this scale.”
So given the success of the day and the outstanding turn out around the world, where did he see the event going in the future?
“Hopefully this is an opportunity for an annual event, maybe like the London Marathon where clubs around the world can use Bart’s Bash to raise funds for their sailing communities.”
On the water many would have paid dearly to be a fly on the side deck of Ben’s boat during the race. Given his fiercely competitive nature, had he behaved himself?
“He was very good,” said Georgie. “I think he knew his Sunday dinner depended on it”
In this respect he wasn’t alone.
After the race and having dropped off my own boat at home, I shot down to Weymouth, to Bart’s Bash central where the hub of the operation was based in order to catch a taste of what the day had been like. And while most of the competitors had left, the key players started to congregate to discuss how the day had gone. Many had been working flat out since the early hours of the morning but there was no mistaking the high that they were all were riding on.
“I’m just blown away,” said Iain Percy who had sailed a Star with Bart’s four year old son Freddie and Artemis team mate Anthony ‘Nocker’ Nossiter. “It was so good to see so many people out there and so many people having a go for the very first time. It was superb, just sad that there was one person missing. He would loved it, really loved it.”
It will be some time before the event organisers can confirm exactly how many people took part in this extraordinary event and probably even longer before they are able to produce a list of results. Handicapping and scoring 20,000+ boats across a range that extends from an Oppie to a 100ft super maxi is an unprecedented task.
It is also anticipated that a new world record will also have been set. But what was crystal clear from the moment people came ashore, was that 21 Sept 2014 was a great Sunday’s club racing around the world, made particularly special in memory of a great sailor and a good cause.