Sailing secrets of Chichester’s 50 years of race-week success

Dignhies of many designs feature in Race Week
Dignhies of many designs feature in Race Week

There is no argument over what will be the biggest sports event of 2017 on Chichester Harbour: the regatta run by the Harbour Federation of sailing clubs, which will see hundreds of dinghies competing in five days of racing in August.

In 2016, there were 401 boats from 57 different classes, making the week almost certainly the biggest dinghy regatta in the UK and quite possibly in the world. Individual sailors, aged from eight to 80 and ranging from Olympic squad members to beginners, totalled 625.

But that is only the beginning of the statistical story. The event – known familiarly as Fed Week for the first 50 years of its history, but renamed the clearer and more internet-search friendly Chichester Harbour Race Week in 2014 – is unique.

It may now be based at one location, Hayling Island Sailing Club, but all 11 dinghy clubs based around the harbour play a part in organising it. They provide the people who run the racing from the three committee boats, and those aboard the large fleet of RIBs and launches that ensure the safety of competitors and track them round the courses. More volunteers staff the race box from which overall safety control operates, or work in the race office where all the admin work is carried out, ensuring results are quickly available. There are first aiders, too, plus people on the beach keeping tabs on younger sailors and others in the clubhouse taking entries or selling Race Week clothing. Together with the racers they brought the 2016 people-total to close to 800.

“The whole event would not work without hundreds of volunteers, and the part they have played over the years,” says one former competitor.

Today, as in 1963 when the first Fed Week was sailed, the combined-club ethos is the same. But much else is very different.

The whole event would not work without hundreds of volunteers, and the part they have played over the years.

Initially, the regatta was run each day by a different harbour club, with competitors sailing or trailing their boats between them. Even when logistical problems led to the permanent move to Hayling Island SC, organisation was far less sophisticated than it is today. “It was a much smaller event and more informal, with starts and finishes on the club line – very testing when the tide was running,” recalls a former Fed Week regular.

Racing then, in the early 1970s, was outside the Harbour as well as in, but for a good proportion of potential competitors that was too intimidating, so major changes were made. The most important was to split competing dinghies into two separate race series within the Harbour (now there are three series), each with its own race officer – Mike Baker and Nigel Roper, who both served for more than 20 years.

One of their first tasks was to work out how to set two separate courses in the open water stretching from Hayling up towards the narrower creeks. An early idea to race each series round the same marks but in opposite directions was, very sensibly, quickly ruled out, and the format of one course inside the other that continues today was adopted. Now, though, specially laid marks are used rather than the permanent harbour racing marks.

So, the pattern for Race Week in the 21st century was set. And while new challenges have come, notably coping with the huge disparity of speed between the different dinghy designs racing, one is timeless. To do well, then and now, says Roger Palmer, a competitor for more than 45 years and expert in understanding harbour conditions, racers need to master the “complex calculation of wind and tide”.

Chi Race Week 2016 is one which will go down in Harbour history as a truly memorable event. For the first time for many years entries topped 400 boats. The weather was generally kind, if a little capricious – but shifting winds are part of the challenge and appeal of the event. Competitors came from all round Britain and represented 53 clubs, more than half of them new to the week.

Ashore, a much enhanced social programme offered attractions from a hugely popular steel band to a quiz night, a ‘how to win Race Week workshop’ and a Rio-themed beach party, as host club Hayling Island SC and other Harbour Federation clubs welcomed competitors and their families and friends.

For 2017, all this will be built on, with the aim to keep the entry high, attract more new competitors and continue to run superb racing on three separate courses laid each day to suit wind conditions.

All the information will be on the website, www.chichesterharbourraceweek.sailevent.net, with on-line entry at early-bird prices opening soon.

Dinghy sailors who raced in Fed Week in the 1970s recall that “the only fast boats you had to watch out for were the International 14s”. Even they, though, were very different from the modern dinghies in this development class – far less extreme hulls, a single trapeze and conventional spinnakers.

Now helm and crew perch out on towel-rail-style supports, each on a trapeze, to balance the narrow hull powered by a huge asymmetric genoa. But even these state-of-the-sailing-art 14s are not the very fastest boats in Race Week. They’re outpaced by Olympic class 49ers, and hot on their heels are RS800s and Musto Skiffs, all dinghies no-one could have imagined 40 or 50 years ago.

Today, Race Week is a remarkable showcase of many decades of dinghy design. Classics such as the Firefly, GP14 and Enterprise still enter, but small numbers now. The designed-for-planing Fireball, whose prototype was built at Dell Quay and was revolutionary in the 1970s, has staged a revival in the event, as one of the single-class starts. And other long-seen classes such as the Solo and (for the very youngest competitors in this family event) Optimist continue to thrive.

But the main spectacle of the week is provided by the many modern dinghies known as asymmetrics, whose big, colourful gennakers make a fine show. They’re fast, exciting – and prone to spectacular capsizes.

Look at the list of trophies for Race Week, and they provide a chapterful of Harbour history.

Among the examples is the newest cup, for the fastest youngster sailing an RS Tera Sport dinghy. It commemorates Nigel Pusinelli, a modest, much-medalled man who was one of the people involved in the setting up of Chichester Harbour Conservancy. He worked tirelessly for more than three decades to preserve the harbour as a place of enjoyment for so many people – and continued racing in Fed Week into his 80s.

The winner of one of the handicap classes receives a trophy named after Sir Geoffrey Lowles, a commodore of Itchenor SC and responsible for introducing Sunbeam keelboats to the Harbour. The Freddie West trophy, for a high-entry one-design class, isn’t linked to the notorious mass murderer, fortunately. This West was a leading light at Dell Quay SC, also remembered in the name of a safety boat which has done sterling service at the regatta.

Most oddly titled is the Gerald King Cornflake trophy, given by King’s daughters for the Flying Fifteen class. King, a Hayling Island SC member, had sailed dinghies but later moved to the keelboat that has long been a popular regatta class. And the cereal connection? King was renowned for writing notes and sketching on the back of cornflake packets.

Special report by LIZ SAGUES

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