Cowes Week Starts on the Squadron Line- OCS! (or not!)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

How close can you get?

Most competitors at Cowes Week understand the special nature of starting on the fixed line off the historic Royal Yacht Squadron. The crowds of spectators, the brass cannon, the ripping tides all contribute to the excitement and drama of trying to get a good start.

In a big fleet the gains made by being ahead at the start often lead to clear wind and freedom to dictate tactics and course- all of which make the race win more likely.

The downside is the starting is often nerve-janglingly close!

Hearing the dreaded second gun announcing someone is OCS is the beginning of a nightmare- do you think you were clear? In which case you may sail for hours and all for nothing! Do you go back, which meant dodging the other competitors and possibly the tide and almost certainly start last?

The final option is to challenge the Race Committee and ask for re- instatement...IF you thought you were NOT on course side.

The RYS video the start of all races in Cowes Week, the reason is to enable the identification of early starters and also to prove their line calls are correct. If you chose to fill in the query form after the finish, you get to see the picture taken at the start (but not the video) In almost every case the decision is clear and unequivocal...

But this is what happened to Hyde Sails MD Nigel Grogan and son Jack at the 2015 Cowes Week in their Squib.

Nigel explains how they were called OCS and go to see the video!

“We were leading the Squib class mid-week and were hoping to win the class and maybe White Group overall. On Thursday the tide was ripping out past the Squadron at about 1.5 knots and the breeze was from the North West at only about 5 or 6 knots, so progress across the line was hardly going to be rapid. The plan was to start with clear wind half way up the line and roll the boats to leeward and get to the new breakwater and slightly less tide. It was a risky strategy as if we were not in clean air we would get sucked back by the tide and crucified by the inshore starters. A complication was that we could see the inner distance mark was about two boat lengths behind the line, but at least we knew we could be well past it and safe. The outer distance mark we were not so sure of, but thought it just safe, being pushed down tide like the rest of us!

We lined up with about one minute to go, a small luff and we would be set back from the line, a bear away and we would move forwards but risk someone taking our wind. With 10 seconds to go we hoisted the kite and pulled the trigger.

Two guns! Were we ok?

My first thought was that although I knew it was close we had 3 boats in front. 500 were clearly over and shot up in front of us to go back. We were half a boat back from 52 and poised to roll them, 706 was well in front of them. The boats inshore got out of the tide and flew away in the fading breeze.....

At the finish 52 had got to second, we were 5th. Not great but good enough.......until we heard that both of us, plus 706 had been OCS.

Normally that would have been the end of the matter, but friends on shore had watched the start and listened to the radio commentary, which had clearly said we were close but not over. So we took the decision to log a query and see the photo.

Next morning I went along to the race office to hear the verdict. Out came my form with two pictures one at the start time and one (for identification purposes) taken 3 seconds later....

500 was almost at East Cowes, no wonder they went back! 706 still had their kite in the bag, but were a boat length over. 52 was luffing up and her spinnaker was clearly over the line......but tantalisingly her hull obscured ours. Our spinnaker luff appeared to be exactly on the white line superimposed by the camera indicating the line.......

Surely we were not over the line....we were ON the line!

With the regatta at stake for us (we had already used our discard with an 18th place earlier in the week) we had nothing to lose by asking for a second opinion. So politely we were told to sit down and the girl delivering the bad news went away with the picture. Soon she ushered us into the Protest Room where an American guy who looked as though he might have won plenty of Olympic medals in his time was staring at “the picture” with his bacon and egg sandwich poised in his other hand. “It looks close guys” he eventually pronounced “wait outside”.

There then ensued 10 more minutes of torture....

Eventually from the surprisingly capacious backrooms came a charming, oldish gentleman who introduced himself as “The Cameraman” he asked me to follow him into the hallowed rooms at the hub of the Cowes Week organisation. He beckoned me into a seat and turned his screen to me.

“I can go back and run the video for you, we never show this to anyone” he said “this is close”

The video he explains runs at 24 frames per second. We watched and the numbers rolled in excruciating slow motion. There was the kite hoist, there was the weaving to slow down, and there was the gun! We were none the wiser!

Another re run, frame by frame.

Still too close to call.

Finally he was able to stop the video at 1344 and 59 seconds. “There you are “I said, “we are safe!”

He clicked his mouse to 1345...........we were half the spinnaker clew patch over....3 inches! We were OCS by less than half a second!!!

“I don’t suppose the guy on the flags was a bit late was he?” I said lamely...

The American guy just glared.”


The White line is the “gunsight “from the camera. The picture is on the gun

Hyde Sails Ltd, Harbour Building Office A, Hamble Point Marina, Hamble, Southampton SO31 4NB

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