Middle Aged, Middle Of The Fleet, And Loving It – Kiel Week 2002 (Kieler Woche)

Sailors are only young once – for this sailor it’s once a year at Kiel Week.  An old J-24, old sails and a 43 year old man felt young again from 22 to 25 June.  Kiel is tremendous – 6,000 competitors and 2,000 boats, double the size of Cowes.  We are sailing at the 1972 Olympic center on the northwest side of the bay.  Kiel also hosted the 1936 Olypmics and is making an impressive bid to so again in 2012.  Submarines and square riggers are out in numbers.  A few kilometers away in the old Hanseatic city there is an enormous annual festival with some hundreds of thousands of people participating in a four kilometer party (www.kieler-woche.de), but I don’t have the time to visit given all the sailing and partying here, and this is my third Kiel Week in a row!

Kiel 2002

The Kiel Week organisers seem obsessed with reminding you of the years they take away by posting the birth dates of all skippers and crews with each set of results.  Looking back to 50-something Horst Rieckborn at the helm of his J-24, I remember that he is the oldest J-24 skipper, competing in his 25th Kiel Week.  Axel is the 39 year old youngster hopping around the cockpit doing all the winching.  Hans is my 49 year old buddy scrambling across the deck at each shout of “Wende!” (tack!) while Volker’s weight on the foredeck is another reminder of some of the disadvantages of age.  Our boat is named Pathétique.  I reckon that Horst added up the age of his crew and arrived at a number near the year when Beethoven composed his eponymous sonata.  I’m told the name sounds better in German, but surely they’re referring to the music?

My notional job is tactics and navigation up on the rail.  Notionally, I speak a form of halting German that becomes abrupt, braking German when things get hectic.  In all the confusion and fun, I manage to throw a few suggestions in and, as is usual with tacticians, remember making a massive contribution to successes and no contribution to failures.  Off the course, the organisers and competitors couldn’t be more welcoming to non-German speakers.  Everything is provided in English and German.J24

While I enjoy the majesty of Brest, the warm welcome of Cork, the thrills of the Solent and the fun of local regattas, Kiel has become my annual highpoint.  Three things stand out – keen competition, fantastic organisation and good value.  Starting with the keen competition, in truth, Kiel Week might be more accurately called the Two Kiel Half-weeks.  The first four day regatta comprises various international classes with 2 races on the first day, 3 on the second, 3 on the third and 1 race on the fourth.  The second four day regatta comprises the Olympic classes.  Throughout there are classic and offshore races.  Professional committee boat starts in several separate areas are a far cry from the self-centredness of the RYS line at Cowes.  The racing is very international.  Most of our competitors are top sailors in their own countries.  Sailors from over 70 countries are competing in various classes, for example the Chinese windsurfing team.  This year our class of 36 J-24’s has Dutch and Swedish entries alongside the top German sailors.  In previous years we’ve had US, French, Swiss, Italian and other nations.  In the bars on Monday and Tuesday sailing gods such as Sailing Hall of Fame’s Mark Reynolds rub shoulders with mortals out for some good fun.  The blend of competition and camaraderie leads to genuine convivialité or gemütlichkeit depending on your linguistic preference.

For once a national stereotype has a very positive side – fantastic organisation.  The support Kiel’s organisers provide to competitors makes you feel special.  There is a detailed weather briefing each morning from a national TV weatherman, complete with handouts so you don’t need notes.  The race results are efficient and timely.  The cars to and from the car parks are frequent, with televisions so you don’t miss World Cup games, although because the television only operates when the car is stopped there tends to be a bit of stop-start braking of the shuttle cars in time with radio announcements of things worth watching.  There is a wide, varied selection of food, from fast food of all sorts to restaurants.

As the Rolling Stones prove, with enough drink, it’s never a drag getting old.  While I know little about “mother’s little helper”, there is an even better selection of drink, drunk from glass not plastic.  The varied evening entertainments are a wonderful combination of music and humour.  One group, United Four, seems to have become an annual double fixture singing cover tunes with an enthusiasm that has an audience of several hundred chanting along till past midnight.  Seeing their six and half foot lead singer do a very passable vocal and visual send-up of Britney Spears brings tears, of humour, to your eyes.  Their self-deprecating humour makes you question other German stereotypes.

To address good value, €180 provides all race fees for the 9 races, berthing, boat lifts, car parking, very frequent shuttles back to the car for forgotten possessions and hats for the crew.  Contrast this with €260 or more for an equivalent Cowes entry for 7 races without berthing, lifts, parking, etc.  Hotel accommodation less than five minutes walk from the boat set us back €50 per evening.  Two beers, a steak, salad and chips in a nice restaurant set our budget back a chilling €18, and, no, we hadn’t made reservations a year in advance.  True, you have to get to Kiel, but with discount flights to Hamburg, Bremen or Lűbeck often running at £120 or less it looks competitive with public transport to Cowes.

Sure, there are some problems.  Three Musto dealers were of no use on a problem with Musto’s HPX gear, although Musto UK sorted it out gratis.  The committee boat tangled a start of one class with the finish of another, wasting an hour.  The tideless Baltic will never match the complexity of the Solent.  I think the final word on Kiel ought to go to old-timer Horst, who has seen the racing double in size over the last quarter of a century.  Asked about his plans for his 26th year, Horst said, “I couldn’t miss the best competition in all of Europe”.

So how did we do?  Well to use an old Irish expression, it took a lot of people to beat us.  We tried to help them by being too lazy to change up to the genoa when the breeze reduced in one race (age you know), or by diving overboard in disgust at having to take a 720 penalty (well, I may have not quite understood the German warning that the 720 was about to start).  Despite our best efforts, we placed a credible 15th against the 35 other youngsters.  More importantly, we placed our reservation for next year.

Michael Mainelli has been racing traditional craft and plastic boats with equal enjoyment for over 30 years.  He is a Royal Corinthian Yacht Club member and a committee member of the Thames Match.  Michael has been racing at Cowes since 1990, much of that in the Sigma 33 fleet.  Since 1996 Michael and his wife Elisabeth have owned S.B. Lady Daphne, see www.lady-daphne.co.uk or call (020) 7562-7656 or email michael_mainelli@zyen.com.


Racing With The Settees, The Kids, And A Roaring Fire

[originally published by “Yachting World,” IPC Media, Spring 2002 online]

Photo: Pre-race Manoeuvres, courtesy Marc Schlossman, www.marcschlossman.com

“Free the wang (sic)”, “keep the horse clear (ditto)”, “babies below (what?)” and “shall I serve lunch before the next tack (yes!)” are not the sort of phrases one expects to hear during a race.  However, this is fairly common racing patter in the midst of a barge match.  Races of enormous, graceful classic boats haven’t left Britain since last summer’s wonderful J-Class events; after 158 years Thames sailing barge matches are here to stay.  Many people don’t realise that the oldest continuous racing after the America’s Cup (1851) is the Thames Match every year from Gravesend round a mark off Southend and back (1863).

Sailing barge history is fascinating both economically and nautically.  Estimates of the number of barges built over the centuries range up to 10,000.  In 1910, there were 2,100 on the Merchant Navy Register, but numbers were declining such that at the end of World War I there were about 1,650 barges in trade and by the beginning of World War II only 600 remained.  The barges themselves contributed to this steep decline, having “dug their own graves” by carrying the materials which built the roads for the lorries which replaced them.  The last wooden barges were built in the 1920’s, the last steel barges in the 1930’s.  Today, there are about 45 remaining hulls but only about 20 Thames sailing barges are in race-able condition around the UK.  With a few charming exceptions such as the tiny barge Cygnet, Thames barges range from 50 to 100 tonnes and from 80 to 95 feet.

Thames sailing barge designs date from the seventeenth century when the English began modifying Dutch spritsail designs.  The spritsail rig consists of a mast with a permanent sprit (or boom) mounted at about 60 degrees vertical.  This contrasts with a gaff rig which is more like raising or lowering a telephone pole perpendicular to the mast for each sailing.  The permanent sprit, combined with some early, but efficient, winches gave the sailing barges their distinct advantage, an ability to carry around 200 tonnes of cargo with two crew (“a man, a boy and a dog”).  When this cargo is contrasted with, say, 200 ox carts and drivers, the advantages are clear.  When this trade is centred on the Thames, where tides can guarantee delivery less than 48 hours from Suffolk, Kent or Essex to London, these are the makings of a fantastic industry.  London was the only major European city other than Hamburg on a tidal river, and Hamburg didn’t control the Netherlands or Denmark while London could be fed by Suffolk, Kent and Essex.  Thames sailing barges were the only technology of the time capable of feeding a metropolis before the advent of the railways.  As late as 1903 a Joint Select Committee of Lords and Commons estimated that 75% to 80% of the whole traffic of London was carried by barges.

Thames sailing barges are distinctive in other ways – they are self tacking on the foresail and mainsail “horses”, typically draw less than four feet, can lower their masts to pass beneath bridges and use leeboards rather than a keel.  These characteristics were all crucial to the development of Thames waters with their tight, shallow estuaries, bridges and mud flats providing food and materials for the capital with its fast tides.  Their 3,500 square foot ochre sailplan was also highly distinctive, as recorded in numerous London paintings and early photographs.  The heyday of sailing barges was the latter half of the nineteenth century.  By this time the design was so stable that bargemen could board a new vessel in the middle of the night and find everything in the same place.  Thames barges sailed throughout the south and east coast, from the Scillies to Newcastle, as well as conducting a thriving trade with the Continent.

Records of barge racing start in Harwich in 1844.  The most famous race, the Thames Match (see www.thamesmatch.co.uk), was begun by Mr Henry Dodd (1801–1881) with the support of the Prince of Wales Yacht Club.  Having made a fortune in waste removal using five barges of his own, Dodd was an enterprising person both in business and socially.  He knew Charles Dickens and is believed to be the inspiration for the “Golden Dustman” character, Mr Boffin, in “Our Mutual Friend”.  Dodd wished to show, in his own words, “the value of the races, not only as sporting events, but as a means of advertising their usefulness as a means of transport and bringing to the public eye a better picture of what a sailing barge can do in the way of speed”.

Yachties who race “plastic boats” may be surprised to discover that classic boat races are extremely competitive.  Barges in the faster classes travel at anywhere from 8 to 10 knots in a Force 4 or above and all the barges are reasonable to windward with tacking angles from 100 to 120 degrees.  With many of the barges exceeding 100 years in age, the extant Thames barges have been racing each other for at least 70 years, so every nuance of performance is known, and not just one’s own boat but that of most of the competition.  The courses are familiar, down to the last eddy at each state of the tide, and comments such as “that won’t work, remember when Harry tried it in 1928” are not uncommon.  For those who think they might miss physical labour on a self-tacking rig, there are the joys of winching up a 1.5 tonne leeboard on each tack, a delight only to be compared with “coffee-grinding”.

The crews compete for prestigious “silverware” using effectively the same rules as the IYRR.  Interestingly, class rules limit crew to 5 and passengers to 12, although the rules in some matches have been extended so that any 5 of 17 can perform a manoeuvre.  A few races are handicapped, with seconds deciding the results.  Modifications for racing include changes to the sailplan, removal of the propeller and even the addition of “racing” leeboards, hydrodynamically-shaped boards that push the boat upwind which may date back to the 1880’s.  Naturally, in a tradition pre-dating the first yacht club, barge folk discuss a day’s race in the time-honoured way, over several beers in the bar (often the inbuilt bar all barges seem to have).

There is a well-established series of matches, some particularly convenient for east coast sailors.  More history and other links are available at www.thamesbarge.org.uk and www.sailingbargeassociation.co.uk.

Of the above fixtures, perhaps the most convenient for many sailors will be watching the Thames sailing barges open Cowes week racing for the third year in a row, the Solent Match.  The Solent Millennium Match 2000, saw three barges in the first official Cowes week race, Kitty, Lady Daphne and Victor in order of place.  Last year’s Solent Match 2001 was more exciting with Ironsides, Cabby, Kitty, Lady Daphne, Victor and Thistle all participating.  Sadly, Thistle retired to give assistance to a “plastic boat” on port tack whom she had dismasted after the “plastic boat” failed to appreciate the speed of these large vessels.

Many of the barges can be hired for a match.  12 charterers combine with 5 crew for an exciting race.  Probably the only drawback to racing a barge is the distance from the water and the rather dry condition (moisture-wise) when one returns to port; guess it’s those babies on board.  Typically barges are used on the Thames and Solent for corporate entertainment – team building, cocktail parties or clay pigeon shooting (indeed).  A few barges have Class V or Class VI passenger certificates and can carry up to 54 people.  And, in case you’re curious, yes, we do sail with four settees and sometimes use that fire after a mid-summer’s race!

Michael Mainelli has been racing traditional craft and plastic boats with equal enjoyment for over 30 years.  He is a Royal Corinthian Yacht Club member and a committee member of the Thames Match.  Michael and his wife Elisabeth own S.B. Lady Daphne at 91 feet, 76 registered tonnes, built 1923 by Short Bros in Rochester.  Elisabeth and Michael charter S.B. Lady Daphne for up to 54 people.  All proceeds go to S.B. Lady Daphne’s restoration.  A highlight of S.B. Lady Daphne’s 2001 season was winning the Thames Match Coasting Class last season with 12 charterers on board.