Too much and too little - the weather dominates Sonar European Championship at Cowes

It was a battle of the local boats for the top places in the Sonar European Championship held in Cowes from 16-18 September, and they will be hoping that the same will hold true for the World Championship to be staged in Cowes next week.

The top local team of Paul Bowen, Duncan Bates, Shaun Kellet, and Ben Rogerson sailing Billy overhauled Jenny, sailed by Andy Cassell, on the last day to take the Championship by just one point. Another local boat, Bertie took the third place with Droh Cohen, the Israeli sailor who is the current Paralympic Gold Medallist, in fourth.

The weather over the three day series made life difficult for the Chief Race Officer, Tony Chilvers, and his team from the Island Sailing Club with too much wind on the first day and too little on the last. Winds gusting to 27 knots on Friday and a very steep Solent chop caused all racing to be abandoned, but the second day delivered sunshine and light to medium northerlies, which allowed four races to be held.

A windward/leeward course was set on the Brambles Bank with the windward mark near Hill Head buoy. The northerly wind meant the course would be across the strong ebb tide and, with the windward mark not far off the north shore, it was inevitable that it would be shifty, but the fleet also had to contend with considerable variations in pressure and the strong cross tide.

Simon Barter’s Bertie led the fleet around the first lap of the course in race one, ahead of Geronimo, Andy Cassell’s Jenny, and Wombat 11, the latter in the hands of one of the visiting Scottish contingent.

On the second beat, however, it was the Israeli, Dror Cohen sailing Shellie who moved from sixth at the first leeward mark to first at the second windward mark, rounding ahead of Bertie with Jenny in third and Wombat 11 in fourth. Jenny passed Bertie on the run to take second at the finish while Berties held on to third ahead of Billy which had an uncharacteristically difficult race.

In race two, it was the Israelis who rounded the windward mark first with Billy second as the rest of the fleet overstood badly by misjudging the strong westerly flowing tide. Down the run, Billy moved ahead and was never threatened. The Israelis held on to second with Andy Cassell’ Jenny in third and Jeff Skinner’s Geronimo in fourth.

Race three started with the fleet again favouring the pin end of the line with a beat that was heavily biased to port tack owing to the strong ebb tide sluicing across the course. Scintillate made a storming start on port tack at the pin and, as the fleet all tacked to port, was able to open a clear gap which she held to the windward mark. In second were the Israelis followed by Bertie and Billy.

As the leaders sailed the short distance to the spreader mark everything started to change. The wind swung right so far that the boats that hoisted their spinnakers immediately were running to the spreader while those ahead were slowing as the wind died for them. With the tide rushing to the west the leaders were swept past the spreader mark as they attempted to hoist spinnakers and gybe, while behind them Billy and Echo, which had rounded in fourth and seventh places, spotted the opportunity and nipped around the mark and headed off down the run.

By the leeward mark Billy had a lead she would hold to the finish. Echo rounded second ahead of Jenny, with Scintillate, the early leader, now back in fourth.

The top three held their positions up the next beat but behind them there were plenty of place changes. John Robertson moved up from seventh to fourth while Scintillate dropped to ninth, just behind the Israelis.

On the run, with Billy well ahead, John Robertson in Chimera chose the right side while everyone else opted for the middle or left. The move lifted him to second, ahead of Jenny while Echo, which had gone well left on the run was dropped to fifth.

The wind went very light before the fourth race but the CRO spotted wind moving down Southampton Water and began the starting sequence for the fourth race of the day. Unfortunately, the wind hadn’t quite arrived and for a while it looked as if not all boats would reach the line. The wind did arrive in time, however, and the fleet again fought for the pin end of the line, with Jenny making a start on the pin to break clear immediately as the whole fleet headed off on port.

Chimera followed Jenny around the first mark with Echo in third ahead of Bertie. Down the run Bertie moved in to third and by the second windward mark had passed Chimera to hold second place behind Jenny.

Down the run for the last time Chimera took back second place by passing Bertie but it was to be a short-lived celebration for John Robertson who, it turned out, had called OCS by the spotters. Echo moved ahead of Bertie on the last beat to the finish with Billy finishing fourth.

The overnight leader after four races was Andy Cassell in Jenny, one point clear of Billy with Bertie in third and the Israeli team in fourth.

The final day was again dominated by the weather, but the problem on Sunday was lack of wind. After a short postponement to allow a light breeze to stabilise, the first race got underway in a light northerly.

With the port end favoured, there was a scrimmage for the pole position and one of the Scottish boats, Halfing a Laugh was forced over early along with Echo. With the fleet starting behind them they were trapped and could only wait to be passed before returning to recross the line. Geronimo, Jenny, Scintillate, Bertie, and Billy all extricated themselves quickly from the start and headed up the beat on the lifted port tack.

Initially, the left-hand side of the course was favoured with a lifted angle and more pressure but as the boats sailed up the beat the leaders were headed and were able to tack onto starboard and lay the windward mark, many overstanding by several boat lengths.

Billy led around the top mark by several boat lengths with Chimera in second, but down the run these two leaders swapped position as the fleet split across the course seeking better pressure in the very light conditions.

Back up the beat, the leaders favoured the right of the beat and Chimera led around the windward mark for the second time as the breeze picked up to nearly ten knots, followed by Billy. Chimera gybed immediately to port while Billy held on starboard and split from the leader. After a few minutes Billy gybed back to follow Chimera to the left side of the run.

At the line it was Billy who led from Chimera with Scintillate in third – but they then discovered that they had been OCS so all their hard work had been for nothing.

While the leaders rounded the leeward mark in reasonable pressure it was a different story for the tail-enders who struggled to stem the ever increasing tide as the wind slowly died.

By the time the last boat finished, the wind had died to virtually nothing, leaving the CRO with no choice but to hoist the AP and wait for the wind to return.

Unfortunately, it was to be a fruitless two-hour wait as the fleet anchored and crews sunbathed close to the committee boat. At just after 1400 racing was abandoned and the crew of Billy became the 2005 European Champions. With only five of the scheduled nine races sailed there was no discard allowed and Billy won by a single point from Jenny, with Bertie in third another seven points behind.

Now all attention will turn to the World Championship, which will be staged in a week’s time, also in Cowes, but run by the Cowes Corinthian Yacht Club. It will be interesting to see if the top local boats like Billy and Jenny can match the speed of the visiting Americans who include the current World Champion and several other top US Sonar sailors.