Dragon Boat Racing

Cambridge, 16th September 2002
As a diversion from big yacht sailing, I'm trying to get involved in some smaller boat work. It's both for fun and to get more experience of sailing; similarly to rowing, smaller boats help your understanding of the basics involved. Luckily a friend of mine, MJ, has sailed most of his life, most recently in the Dragon class. No, it's not a huge wooden boat with paddles down each side, but a three person sailing boat. Here is a photo of Dragon boats in action. The club where the boat is, Aldeburg, was running two short races with mix and match crews. The idea was to help the slower members of the fleet by sharing the experience around. Given that MJ and his Dad came 6th in the Dragon European Championships this year, and I've never set foot in a boat like this before, I think the experience was fairly mixed.

We drove down in the morning, arriving at the club in time for a spot of lunch before crews were finalized and we headed for the water. I was racing as crew with Baloo and with a different helm for each race; Mike (MJ's Dad's boat share partner) and MJ in the second. After a far too brief time on the water (enough to raise and drop the spinnaker once and put in a couple of tacks) the first race drew near. Compared to the 72" boats I'm more used to, these were amazing. You could adjust pretty much everything (and we did), and there wasn't much room to move around. With only three crew each person has multiple responsibilities, although I think Baloo was doing more than his fair share to make up for me.

My first race didn't get off to a great start; judging where the start line was is tricky, and we slowed up a bit too much. It was a downwind leg and everyone else powered over the line whilst we were getting up to speed. However, only a few lengths down, and lying 5th out of 6. Throughout the downwind leg boats were fighting for position, out of the incoming tide but far enough away from the bank to avoid grounding, getting that inside overlap for the first marker which would be passed anticlockwise to port. As we reached the mark, having made up some ground, disaster struck! My lack of experienced showed as we wrapped the spinnaker around the bow of the boat. Thankfully as we went against the tide we weren't carried too far past as we sorted everything out, but we had it all to do in the beat back. Both Mike and Baloo were pretty good, and racing against some of the less well maintained boats we made ground back to the second mark. A quick downwind sprint then back up for the finish line with no more disasters, and by the end the tacks were coming together faster. MJ's Dad had raced away, with MJ chasing in second place. Third place was Rory, a great helm but in the worst boat, and we came in at fourth.

We swapped people around for the next race; MJ came in to helm in our boat. The second race started at the club house, with hardly any room to manoeuvre before the line. We circled a few times, before coming around with just under a minute to go. Most of the fleet were behind us: we were going to cross too early. We slowed, but with Rory right behind us he didn't see how much we'd slowed, and scraped the back of our boat with their bows. Now we were definitely over the line, and bang goes the gun. We head back around the line and get going, the four other boats lengths in front, and Rory doing a 720 degree penalty turn for the collision. Everyone sticks to the left hand side of the river on the run; opposite of the last race. With nothing really to lose we make a move across the tide to the right hand side. We make it over okay, still keeping position, but the wind drops for enough to lose a few more lengths. Rory has followed us over, and has gained slightly. As we reach the mark everything goes well; we see one boat having bad problems rounding, so gain another place up to fourth.

The tacks come together as we make ground on the boats in front, catching a few nice lifts as the wind changes direction right near the bank. With some well-timed tacks, we're cross tacking with the boat in front; first we have to duck behind their stern as they have priority, then they do the same for us on the next tack. Next time though, we've moved in front and are able to hold course. Round the second mark, and we run back down the course. With a few length lead I have a go at trimming the spinnaker; we round the mark and beat back up, still in fourth place, but gaining on the boats in front. Up to the line we don't hear the finish guns for the crews in front, ours is the first we hear. Off the water after packing up the boats we find out that the first three crews were over the line at the start: we've won!

After a few beers in the clubhouse we return back to Cambridge. A pretty exhausting day, but great fun. The club might run a similar set of races, so there might be a chance to learn some more sometime soon, which would be great. Racing, rather than just training, shows how good you have to be; you don't have time to ask questions or get something wrong. It also shows just how some points in the race are critical; whilst in both races we were able to overhaul people on the beats, we were just recovering from unnecessary mistakes. It's definitely given me incentive to do more small boat work and to get more racing experience in. Looking to the future I'm sailing next Sunday with my family, and then a development training sail in Southampton at the end of November.