Dave Cullen's Checkmate XV from Howth Yacht Club lies second after the opening day of the Half Ton Classics Cup in Nieuwpoort, Belgium brought overcast skies, fickle light winds and a big challenge for both the competitors and the Koninklijke Yachtclub Nieuwpoort's Race Committee.
The 18-strong fleet is a fascinating mixture of relatively unchanged vintage boats from the golden era of the Half Ton class, and up-dated craft which continues to retain the best characteristics of a boat size and type which continues to have enduring appeal. The ingenious use of handicap systems and clever class sub-divisions provides for realistic racing, and the spirit of the class, energised by shared enthusiasm, provides a rewarding sailing experience.
This has attracted both Checkmate XV and another Howth boat, Jonny Swann’s Harmony, to travel to Belgium for the five day championship, which next year will be staged at La Trinite on France's Biscay coast. Just one race could be completed yesterday, and after emerging cleanly from the start, Checkmate finished second to Per Elisa (Robbie Tregear) with Red Cloud (Tom Florizoone) third, while Harmony was sixth.
The Half Ton Class brings together the owners of vintage IOR boats built to the Half-Ton rule to race under IRC handicap and features a wonderful mixture of "as original" and significantly updated boats as well as both family crews and top professional sailors. This year's event features sailors from across Europe and as far afield as Hobart, Tasmania.
On arrival in the start area, there was very little wind with just the occasional zephyr of breeze rolling down the course from the north-west. Fortunately, as the start time approached the bands of breeze began to join up and a relatively steady 4-5 knots established itself across the course, allowing racing to get underway at 14.00 as planned.
The fleet was extremely eager and a number of boats were over the start line and had to return. The Ron Holland Golden Shamrock design Half Duke, racing this week with an all girl crew and representing the NGO "Mothers & Midwives Support", and Jacques Lemaire's 1977 Davidson designed Waverider both had to struggle back to the line as their fellow competitors headed off towards the windward mark. Also over the line but failing to return was the Italian team aboard Blue Berrett Pi.
With the wind still very patchy and shifty it was a tough beat as first one group and then another would appear to have the advantage. At the first mark, it was Toni Stoschek & Janne Tukolas's 1988 Andrieu designed Superhero which headed the fleet with David Cullen's Checkmate XV, a 1985 Rob Humphreys design, in second and Robbie Tregear's 1992 Ceccarelli designed Per Elisa third. Further back down the fleet Waverider was already making a good recovery from their disastrous start and had begun to pick off the backmarkers.
As the leaders came round the first mark the wind dropped to just 2-3 knots and they found themselves gybing and ghosting along on a close reach parallel to the spreader leg just to maintain any speed at all. Despite the painfully slow going, Per Elisa managed to keep a steady pace, picking their way around the flat patches before timing their gybes perfectly to claim a generous lead at the leeward mark. Checkmate XV was second to round with Tom Florizoone's 1981 Joubert designed Red Cloud in third. Behind the leaders, Superhero was now just ahead of the chasing pack.
Towards the end of the run, the wind had started to increase again from behind, bringing the backmarkers up with it. Taking full advantage of this opportunity was Waverider who finished the second leg into the top half of the fleet.
With the wind remaining very unstable the race committee wisely decided to make leg three just a short beat to the finish. As they came through the line the teams were pleased to see the signals confirming that no attempt would be made to run a second race and instructing them to return to the marina.
Back ashore and with the handicap times corrected Per Elisa was confirmed as the overall race winner by a minute and twenty-seven seconds from Checkmate XV with Red Cloud third.
As they'd crossed the line in seventh place on the water, the Waverider crew could be seen checking their watches and hoping for a good result, but it wasn't until the prize giving that they got confirmation of fourth place overall and first place in the new Vintage IOR Division for non-modified (except for mast and keel) Half Tonners. Their result was all the more impressive when you bear in mind that a couple of years ago Waverider was severely damaged when a crane collapsed on top of her. A wooden boat, the accident took her completely out of shape and for many she would have been a write-off. But not for Jacques Lemaire and his family and friends who first got her into a jig to settle back into shape over an extended period before being able to spend all their spare time over the last few months rebuilding her ready for this event.
At the daily prize presentation, Waverider's Jacques Lemaire and his crew received not only the daily Vintage IOR Division prize of a Harken Winch handle, but also a rousing cheer for their welcome return to the fleet. Per Elisa's Robbie Tregear received the overall daily prize of a Spinlock Deckvest Lifejacket and an equally hearty round of applause.
As well as great racing, the Half Ton Class is renowned for its camaraderie and love of a good party, and so the day concluded with a fabulous fillet steak BBQ.
The forecast for day two is for further light winds, but it is hoped that conditions will once again be sailable. The Race Committee will brief the competitors at 08.30 and, conditions permitting, will start the first of up to three races at 10.30.
The championship continues until Friday 24 August and will feature a mixture of windward/leeward, short coastal and long coastal courses, with a maximum of three races being sailed each day.
Provisional Top Five After 1 Race
1. Per Elisa - 1
2. Checkmate XV - 2
3. Red Cloud - 3
4. Waverider - 4
5. Superhero - 5