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A Vane National Championships

You always hear the stories from the winners or these events so I thought it time to tell the story from the back end of the fleet. I was new to both the A class and to Vane sailing at the start of the National Championships this week. Before the first race I had sailed the boat 4 times across the lake. My mate for the week was my wife Sam who had not sailed for 30 years and was completely new to the world of model yachting and she had two dogs in tow all week.

The Race format

Vane sailing races are sailed in pairs and you race every boat in the fleet. You start at one end of the lake with the 2 boats about 15 feet apart. You set up the trim of the sails, the vane angle and when the whistle blows you let the boat go hoping it will go off in the right direction. If the boats touch between the start and the finish the leg is resailed. The first to arrive at the finish line at the other end of the lake is the winner. The advice I was given before the start was that you are sailing the wind on the lake and not your competitor. Wise words.

Lining up for the start

When you finish the upwind leg, you complete the race by sailing a downwind leg which usually involves a spinnaker.

This sport can only be played at a lake surrounded by a path so that the boats coming into the shore can be caught, adjusted and released again or if tacking, can be turned using a 5 foot pole or turned by hand. However there are strict rules governing what you can do when you turn the boat around. E.g. If you use the pole to tack the yacht then your feet must be firmly planted on the ground until the boat is released. The pole can only touch the boat once. If you move your feet whilst poling or touch the boat twice you are disqualified.

The Yacht Mechanics

So how do the yachts work. Most of the boats are from different designers are variations on a theme. I sailed one the lightest shortest Dave Hollom designs which are good in light weather but not quick relatively against the heavier longer designs as the breeze increases.

My boat had 4 mains, 2 jibs and 4 spinnakers. A light weather main up to 6 knots, a flat main, then no 2 and 3 getting progressively smaller.

Upwind you sail with a main and jib which have all the usual adjustments, luff tension, foot depth, kicker for adjusting twist and a screw at the front of the jib boom for adjusting the jib leech twist. The mast and booms are carbon and provide superb support for setting the sails. The main and jib sheets are connected to a circular handle. You set the main and jib sheet relatively to one another and then can sheet both and out quickly at the same time using the circular handle if conditions change.

The Vane Gear

The vane gear in fixed mode

At the back of the boat sits the vane gear. The wind vane is cut from a sheet of 1/8th inch balsa and is connected to the vane gear which sits on a circular disc with marks around the outside every 5 degrees. The vane can be set up for beating where the boat can sail on either tack without any adjustment to the boat. This is called broken vane. The other setting is called fixed vane where the vane can be set at any angle and the boat will sail to this angle. The latter is the normal setting when the wind is coming off the side of the lake.

There is an added complication. To keep the tiller of the boat centred, there is a cord running from the tiller to the mainsheet post with a light spring on it to set some tension. You can see it on the picture running down the centre of the boat. The challenge is to find the right tension for this spring. Too much tension and the vane will not be able to steer the boat, too little and your boat can go off course. I never worked out the right tension and as a result the boat either wandered off course downwind or sailed in a straight line with the wind vane inoperable.

Upwind, the apparent wind across the vane is strong and so the tiller length can be shortened. Downwind is the reverse so you have to lengthen the tiller.

Unfortunately I did not get a picture of the vane in broken mode but basically it allows you to sail the boat on either tack with very precise beating angle settings. One final complication is the is a device called a guy. There is a piece of wire attached to the vane gear at 90 degrees to it and you can see a spring going from the wire to the tip of the van gear. By setting the spring to one side or the other you can force the boat to tack when the wind eases or there is a header. The challenge is to get the tension in the spring correct. Too little tension and the boat continues of the undesired tack. Too much tension and the boat tacks immediately.

Downwind you have a spinnaker which is set like a conventional yacht. There is a pole uphaul, downhaul, guy and sheet. On my boat the sheet and guy were fixed and adjusted individually. On other boats I noticed that once the spinnaker was set up, you pull a lever and the sheet can be eased while the guy is pulled and visa versa. This means the sail can easily be adjusted on the bank if the wind shifts. Definitely a feature I wanted on my boat.

Racing the Lake

The Gosport lake

The real secret to vane sailing once you have mastered the above is to race the lake. Gosport has unique winds which are influenced on the south side by groups of trees and on the north side by a large round clubhouse with a cafe on the second story. When the wind is blowing across the lake the challenge is to get the boat to sail down the middle of the lake accounting for the obstructive features. With shifts of up to 30 degrees this was no mean feat.

Tuning the boat

One thing I noticed during the championships was how different weight boats were set up. If you had a light boat you needed plenty of twist so that the boat was not overpowered in the gusts. Being overpowered the boat would head up into wind and stall. As the week went on we sailed with more and more twist. The heavier boats being more powerful could sail with less twist. I also think that the rigs are big enough to think about wind shear so twist would be helpful for that.

To set the boat up so it is balanced, I sheet in for the beat and then sit the boat on the front of the keel and holding the stern, rotate the boat from a beat angle with full sails gradually turning the bow into wind to check that both sails start luffing at the same time. Then I make sure both the main and jib leeches are parallel.

One thing that surprised me at the Nationals, was the lack of competitors using tell tales on the jib and main. These are vital tuning tools and essential to establishing optimum boat speed.

Downwind we had to sail with more twist in the main than most as the boat would get wiped out in the gusts.

The Atmosphere

Once you let the boat go there is nothing that you can do. As a result the atmosphere is so relaxed unlike radio sailing and there is plenty of time to chat and catch up with family and friends. The other thing of note is that there were a significant number of the younger generation. Now if only they could get into radio sailing?

So how did we do?

I sailed with my wife who patrolled the opposite bank to me. She had two dogs in tow which was quite a feat, especially when she had to stop to clean up on one run when one of them decided to have a pooh.

Our preparation had not been ideal. I had sailed the boat a few times across the lake and barely understood how it worked and Sam not only had not sailed for 30 years but had just finished the flowers for a very stressful wedding. Many hours spent the previous week buying and organising the team to present a fantastic display on the day. She went from this to the Nationals the following day and to be honest she needed a break. To say we had no idea what we were doing was an understatement.

For our first race, we with our borrowed boat and used sails were up against brand new sails and a team that seemed to know what they were doing. I set the sails up as best I could, guessed a vane angle for beating and let go when the whistle went. From memory I think we beat them but were disqualified for illegal poling. We repeated this mistake 2 more times throwing a total of 3 races on day one. We eventually got it right and put a few points the board.

Day two got off to a great start with a win in the first race but then we had a series of losses for the rest of the day as the breeze was up and we were just off the pace.

Day three was much the same as the wind build and we struggled against the more powerful boats. We were a bit depressed and firmly in last place.

Day four was for a separate trophy and I did not sail as one, we were totally knackered and two, it was windy and rainy which did not suit the boat, so rather than get thrashed, we took the day off.

Day five on Thursday was bright and occasionally sunny with light winds suiting our trusty steed named Sir Percy. We were unbeaten upwind all day but struggled to maintain a course downwind until someone kindly spotted a vane set error and then we won the last run.

On the final day on Friday we were feeling like pro's ( well almost) and we pulled off a few more victories. We ended the regatta tired but happy.


Vane week is a long week with many trips up and down the lake. You need to be fit to survive the whole week.

The A class yacht is a beautiful beast. They can be light and nimble or heavy and powerful.

Whilst Sam and I had no experience of sailing these boats or used a vane before, the experience was invaluable and she mastered sail and vane adjustment like a professional.

It is funny, over the last 2 months I have sailed 2 borrowed boats, a Marblehead and an A class. Both had their issues (the M was slightly overweight and leaked and the A lightweight) and combined with lack or experience, resulted in me sailing around the back of the fleet. I am looking forward to getting back to my own boats which I know the tuning numbers and are race prepared. As they say, it all adds to my experience and it is no bad thing to finish near last from time to time. As my Dad used to tell me, "never give up" and "remember tomorrow is another day".

On the subject of a bad result.

A long time ago I was looking out to sea during a regatta thinking, the sea is always there and from time to time we sail our little boats round in circles and then go home. The sea doesn't care what happened and neither should we after the event. That changed my attitude to sailing and any other sports I tried and it has served me well. Do your thing at an event, take any learnings and then move on to the next thing. I have slept well ever since that moment.

Would I do it again? If I lived near Gosport or Fleetwood I might consider it but for now I have 3 classes of boat to prepare for their Nationals and a Europeans. Perhaps it is something to think about over winter.

Finally my thanks to the team at Gosport who ran the event. From the measurer, the organisers, the starters the finisher, those who provided lunches and endless cups of tea, the contributors to the beautiful display in the museum, you are all hero's. It was a great event.

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