Race Reports

2011 Vernon Dawson

The Vernon Dawson race 2011 or When Bucko nearly found Nemo, (the Disney character, not the J80 owned by Mike Turner that has a dispensation from the European parliament in Brussels which means they don’t have to comply with port starboard collision regulations, you’ve been warned).

Apologies for this report being some 3 weeks late, but now the headaches have gone and the nightmares are diminishing, its time to put pen to paper.

The Vernon Dawson, a Whitby Yacht Club race is held annually, and is exclusively open to yachts from Scarborough and Whitby clubs. Well that’s what the race instructions said, however, if you’re from Bridlington you can enter if you pay a tenner, not many people know that.

The course is from Scarborough to Whitby, and historically with the prevailing SW winds, (well they were before global warming), it has usually meant the slower boats with a higher handicap had a chance of finishing with a good result. A fact not missed by the only Brid boat to part with a tenner, last year’s winner, Contessa Juliette. Another Brid boat, Starchick, previous SYC regatta winner had sneaked in under the radar, and was now a fully fledged member of Scarborough YC and with a pontoon berth to boot, how did that happen? (And when’s he going to get a proper handicap?)

For those that don’t know, Starchick is Starlight 30, like Starry Night, only it isn’t.

34 boats on the start line, an impressive site, 9 from Whitby, 1 from Brid, and the rest Scarborough boats. It wouldn’t be good to be over early today. As the gun went, Maximus, Craigs ever so expensive Maxi 95, and Cold Steel from Whitby, were recalled.

Shameless had made a very good start, many crews were quick to hoist spinnakers in the fresh SW breeze, we would have been quick to hoist ours, but whoever rigged the boat thought it would be a good idea to plait the spinnaker guy with the guard rail! Once that was sorted, with no swearing (honest, would I lie) we were off, that was until the wind shadow of the castle headland, which we all know about, and most forget about, had other ideas.

The J80 Nemo, helmed today by Brian ‘Yoda’ Sizer, Jedi and purveyor of dodgy watches to an unsuspecting public, caught the breeze just ahead of us, and she was off, like a salamander that just had sulphuric acid poured on its tail. We caught the breeze, and we were off, for a very short time, and then the boat tripped up. Composing ourselves, we straightened up and then it was off on a very exhilarating ride.

The only other 707 taking part, Steve ‘its all done with mirrors’ Bramham on Grand Day Out, had Dave Jackson, and Dave Simpson, aka Brass, (what does aka mean). The man with a Yorkshire accent so broad even Lee Scaife cannot understand him! It was Brass’s first outing on a 707, and his last, it would seem there a bit tippy for him, (tell me about it.

Most boats flew spinnakers; we hauled past some of the boats that had overtaken us whilst we unplaited the spinny sheets. In the distance ahead we could see the red reaching kite of Nemo, and the vertical mast of Captain Calamity’s catamaran, who remarkably finished the race upright, and without a monohull wedged in his cabin.

After 2hrs 15 minutes we crossed the finish line 5th boat over the water. Very impressive, I thought so anyway. The rest of the fleet followed in procession, not very far behind. Conditions were so good that the Scarborough boat Blue, had for the first time I can remember, actually finished a race. Skipper owner Paul Bramley, (longshanks to his friends) was highly delighted. After the usual juggling of numbers and the crossing of palms with silver, surely not, it was the brid boat contessa Juliet that won, (that was a tenner well spent), and Scarborough’s last Jedi on Nemo a credible second.

A handful of boats returned to Scarborough after the finish, but most headed into Whitby, looking forward to some R & R. R & R, to some rest and recuperation, to some rum and raddock, and there’ll only be one person reading that gets that one! and to others raucous and riotous.

So that was a very brief and somewhat one sided look at the Vernon Dawson. I can’t help it if we were that far in front I have no idea what went on behind.

But your not a bit interested in the Vernon Dawson, are you, it’s the events that played out the following day you want to here about, isn’t it?

The Laughton Challenge Trophy was to be raced for on the return to Scarborough on the Sunday, with a start scheduled for 10am. The forecast was for strong winds, (that has to be the understatement of the year) later on Sunday. I checked and discussed forecasts with several skippers, and felt that with 14knt winds and no gusts up until lunchtime, we could go through the 6am Bridge and with a favourable tide be back in Scarborough and having breakfast at Mel’s by 9am.

Saturday evening was spent in Whitby Yacht Club, where a BBQ for £6 (I’m not joking), and a disco were being held. I think someone needs to explain the concept of Disco to the entertainments committee. Granted they had a disco ball casting pretty shapes onto the dance floor, but Studio 54 (Google it) it wasn’t. It failed primarily because no one played any records, quite a fundamental ingredient for a disco. As I was about to leave, someone found a record, ‘One way ticket’ by Eruption, quite ironic given the how the next 12 hours would pan out. As it blasted from the speakers (poetic licence used here) I had to dance. And so did Capt. Lee Bean, from the good ship ‘Whistledown your mooring chain’. In my mind I was throwing shapes like Tony Manero, surely you don’t have to Google him, but in reality, having seen You Tube evidence, I was more akin to the dancing bears of Fatehpur Sikri, (and you will have to Google that).

So we left the club and headed to the marina, via the kebab shop, an event in itself worth a chapter at sometime. We had sailed Shameless up with a crew of six, however one had to work, one had family commitments, and one was bringing his own boat back on Sunday after winter maintenance.

Of the rest of us, Sam chose to sleep on Shameless, Ben, our newest crew member, heir to the Blue empire and possibly growing into the tallest man on earth, (if he gets any taller they’ll have to jack up the sky) was staying on the family boat, and I was joining Captn Lee Bean on ‘Whistledown a donner with extra garlic sauce’.

At 5am Sunday the 22nd May 2011, I got dressed and headed for Shameless to get ready for sea. The morning was still, with hardly a breath of wind. Perfect. Three boats were leaving through the 6 am Bridge, Shameless, Martina, and Whistledown your hornpipe. Andy, the skipper of Martina, went to ablute (Google it) in the shower block. He was surprised to find a well known member of SYC, comatose with his head under the urinal, and mouth wide open. I don’t think they were splashes of lucozade on his face! No doubt his identity will be revealed on twitter or I’ll tell you for a pint of Strongbow.

As we slipped our moorings, we saw Bandit Skipper, Jack Sparrow’s cat, on the pontoon, still wearing last night mascara. We asked if he was setting off, but he told us he couldn’t sleep, and was setting off later. Whistledown a dark alley were first through the bridge, Lee Bean at the helm, and Paul Chuckle crewing, followed by Martina, Andy and Pip being joined by Andys sister Sue, and us, Shameless, with Sam Kennedy, and Ben Bramley as crew.

We hoisted the main as we headed between the 2 pier ends, putting a reef in just in case the forecast wind kicked in earlier than forecast.

As we turned for home at the bell buoy, we were on a close reach, making 7knts plus, perfect. (Add the word storm after that and you get some idea of what was to follow).

By North Cheek the wind increased sufficient for us to be continually spilling the reefed main. By South Cheek, after a wet ride across the bay, we dropped the main all together. Under jib alone, we were still making over 6knt through the water, but were heading for Flamborough. We tacked inshore, broadside to the waves, which weren’t massive, probably about a metre by then, but as they hit the side of the boat, they were pushed by the continually increasing wind, right across the boat. If you know the 707, you will be aware there isn’t much in the way of shelter. We sailed into Hayburn Wyke, and there was a brief respite from the now vicious wind under the lee of the cliffs. We tacked out, and I saw that Martina and ‘Whistledown past a sailor in distress’ had dropped sails and were motoring back, close in.

On this tack we were more into the waves, and every wave invited itself aboard, like gatecrashers at a party, not welcome. But we aren’t made of sugar, so they did no harm, but it was uncomfortable. The wind was howling by now, and it was only just after 8 am. So much for 14knts no gusts on the last forecast. The wind was blowing the white tops off the waves. The boat had a fair bit of heel, but the side decks weren’t under, when a gust, hard to define a gust when the constant wind was so strong. I shouted for the jib sheet to be released, but the gust knocked us flat, and I mean proper flat, flatter than a dab, (Google it).

Sailing a 707 in normal conditions is similar to ‘championship Canadian log rolling’ the boat will stay all day at 90 degrees; the secret is to stay on it. I was stood vertical on the engine bay lid, tiller extension in hand, when I teetered like a freshly tossed caber, and then I was heading headfirst to the sea, like Spiderman descending a skyscraper, well that’s how I saw it, in reality it was probably more reminiscent of a John Smiths truck dropping a keg down the cellar of the Newcastle Packet.

Across the downhill sidedeck, under the guardrail, (yes im slim enough to fit through the gap) and into the sea. I clung to the tiller extension, but that parted company from the tiller, and then I was heading down, for breakfast with Davie Jones, (you won’t need to Google him, surely).

After a short time, that felt like a lifetime, my lifejacket inflated and I was back on the surface, gasping for air, and swallowing mouthfuls of seawater every time I gasped as the waves washed over me.

I turned to see the boat sailing away, quickly, and the feelings in the next few moments were some that I hope none of you ever have to experience. I thought that was it, Domino. I pictured the authorities telling my family I wasn’t coming home, I thought, so this is how it ends, but then my sea survival training, kicked in.

I was afloat, well afloat, so I wasn’t going to drown. And apart from that, I couldn’t possibly go to my maker just yet. The last person I danced with was Lee bean, I had my last meal with Lee Bean, and the last person I slept with was Lee Bean, (not in the biblical sense, pink is my favourite colour, but as I’ve said before, I’m not on the wrong bus). How could I arrive at the pearly gates with that on my CV? What else could kill me? Well I was swallowing a lot of water, and even though I should be used to that after drinking Eddie’s beer for many years, I needed to stop that, so I propped myself up, on the lifejacket, that stopped a lot of it. There was no point me trying to paddle or swim anywhere; I needed to reserve my strength so I could help myself when rescue came.

So I tried to stay calm, and just hoped my crew could get the boat back to me, which by now in force 9 conditions wasn’t going to be easy.

We had lost our VHF aerial about half hour before the knockdown, so I wondered how they would call for help. I could see the cliff tops, and thought surely some dog walker would spot me and ring the coastguard, to say they seen a herring whale adrift and to warn other shipping of my location .

I heard voices and Shameless was close alongside, I grabbed Sams arm, but I was pulled underwater by the momentum of the boat. (A bit like Kevin Costner in Waterworld when he goes over to catch some food, brilliant film) and let go. The boat sailed away. I wouldn’t let go next time. The next time, Sam grabbed me, I grabbed him, we were not letting go. He passed me a rope, which I wound round my spare arm, and then I asked him to put a rope right around, which he did, I was attached. Sam and Ben manoeuvred me to the transom, where I was happy to stay; surprisingly I wasn’t feeling too cold, probably because I have the constitution and build of an old walrus. Sam told me the lifeboat was on its way.

Unfortunately, every time the boat lifted on a wave, it hit me on the head, so Sam insisted I got in the boat. I pushed myself up on the transom, and then Sam and Ben lifted me forward and in. Sounds easy, but wet through I was heavier than a minibus.

I fell onto the deck, just like the 798lb Tunny, landed by Colonel ET Peel in 1932.

There aren’t words to describe the elation I felt at being back on board. I was lying in the cockpit, when I looked at the outboard, which Sam had shipped in an effort to help manoeuvre alongside me. Only he hadn’t put it in the slot properly, so instead of thanking my rescuers, I’m afraid I had to chastise them for nearly breaking the outboard! Blame it on the knock on the head.

After a short time, the lifeboat was alongside, and the first face I saw was the ‘Wolfman’

Glynn Simpson, and again I can’t describe how reassuring that felt. I was helped onto the lifeboat, where I saw more familiar and friendy faces, and was wrapped in blankets, now I started to shiver. I was informed that due to my length of time in the water, which was only a quarter of an hour less than ‘the man from Atlantis’ had spent in the water, that I would need to be airlifted to Scarborough hospital. Not a prospect I cherished as I’m scared of heights. Whilst waiting for the helicopter, I could here the VHF communication. Martina had called the coastguards for help to themselves as their engine had failed, about half an hour before I fell off, but diverted the lifeboat to our position as they could see we were in bother, and then Bandit called the coastguard and accepted an offer of help. The news reports said Bandit, who had decided to leave Whitby an hour after us to avoid the bad weather, were overwhelmed by heavy seas , fact is Jacks Cat had skimped on the waterproof mascara, and he couldn’t see a thing as the fake Rimmel ran into his eyes.

So then it was a helicopter, an Ambulance, and a short stay in the resusce unit whilst I was wired up to machines and wrapped in heated blankets while they treated for mild hypothermia. And as all this went on, Scarborough and Whitby lifeboats brought Martina, Bandit and Shameless safely home.

There has been a lot of analysis since the incident. There is no doubt that my lifejacket helped save my life. I would never go to sea without it. I was lucky that Sam, who was left on the boat, is an experienced sailor, had also the benefit of intensive man overboard training, during his time in the RAF, and that Ben, who is only 16, did not panic, and did everything that Sam asked of him.

In nearly 40 years of being at sea, both professional and in a leisure capacity, I’ve never fallen overboard until this time. (And I don’t intend to fall overboard again). And I’ve never clipped on in a coastal or bay race. I’ve now rigged jackstays so that in future, it’s easier than it was to clip on. (And yes, they’re pink).

Given the same forecasts we had for that weekend, I would make the same decision again, we should have had a 6 to 8 hour ‘window’ to get home. We could have stayed in port, just in case the gale arrived early. But, as I was told by an old salt a long time ago, ‘a boat in harbour is safe, but that’s not what boats are built for’.

But it’s not all bad.

The incident had diverted attention away from ‘Nemo’ which on its return to Scarborough, ran aground on Ramsdale Scar. Helm for the race, Brian Yoda Sizer, who is probably slightly older than the scar itself, ran the boat straight onto it, with such ferocity that the once torpedo shaped lead keel, now resembled a twice size replica of John Merricks head. (Google him).

A white knuckle ride manufacturer, who specialises in those bucking broncos that can be found in fun parks and various venues around the country, wants to market a new ride, ‘Force 9 on a 707’ he thinks it will much harder to stay on than a bucking bull! I said bucking!

And most surprisingly of all, I can say that because I know them both, Lee bean and Paul Chuckle on ‘Whistledown whose pinched me tender’ arrived in Scarborough safely and completely oblivious to the chaos that ensued behind them. To finish, the other boats involved will have their own stories to tell of what happened to them.

For my part, I am grateful that my crew had the tenacity and ability to get me back on board. I cannot praise highly enough the professionalism, and care shown to me by the Lifeboat crew, the helicopter crew, the ambulance crew, and the medical team in Scarborough Hospital.

I was once told, if you go sailing long enough, things will happen to you. They surely will.