Elizabeth II follows Contest III around the weather mark seconds before disaster...

Elizabeth II follows Contest III around the weather mark seconds before disaster...

Ye olde skiff racing

James Boyd witnessed Sunday's match between two of the hyper-extreme Bermuda Fitted Dinghies

Tuesday October 28th 2003, Author: James Boyd, Location: United States
If you think the 49er, 18ft skiff, International 14 and other modern-day lightweight, asymmetric-driven skimming dishes are the machines to separate those with 'cajones' from those without, then it is time to spare a thought to the Bermuda Fitted Dinghy.

These 14ft long beasts in various incarnations have been racing around Bermuda for well over a century now, and are up there with the Atlantic island's shorts, blazer and long socks attire as national icons. They even feature on the Bermudan $1 coin.

Four boats regularly race, the two main contenders being the Royal Bermuda YC's Contest III and her arch rival Elizabeth II, fielded by the Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club a stone's throw away.

The Bermuda Fitted Dinghy comes with as many as four different rig sizes to suit conditions. Contest III, the regular winner at the moment in this somewhat eccentric class was built about a decade ago in the WEST System, has a 14ft 1in long hull (with a substantial bowsprit) and weighs 250lb (around half the weight of her 1952-built predecessor, Contest II). It's largest sail plan allows around 1,500sqft of sail to be flown downwind from a 38ft 6in tall mast and 13ft 6in long boom. With the small rigs the maximum wind the crew tend to dare to go out in is around 20 knots.

The boats are sailed usually by a crew of six and like other traditional craft of this kind bailing is carried out manually, normally by a someone lightweight like one of the crews' children going at it furiously with a bucket.

Like the Sydney Harbour skiffs of old, the class allow crew to be 'ejected' during racing.

"If we put the big rig in and it is very light we will probably eject somebody and they can dive off and give the boat a push forward and get the boat a little bit lighter and a bit faster," explains Contest III crewman and class officinado Roger Mello, who has been sailing these boats for "more than 30 years". In tight races if there is a neck and neck rush for the finish line then a common practise is to eject crew in fast succession so that each gives the boat a brief spurt of speed as they leap off leaving two remaining crew on board to fend as best they can. Once off the crew are not allowed back on board unless they remain in contact with the boat.

Aside from this there is no start line for races. Races start with the boats either side of a committee boat (a catamaran workboat was used for the race we witnessed on Sunday) and are pulled along by ropes before each sets sail on the opposite tack. When more than two boats are raced there is a vague handicapping system whereby the boat which won the last race gets to leave last.

Interestingly the class also do not have conventional port-starboard right of way rules. Instead if the boats look like they are going to collide there is a general yelling by the crew and both boats are then obliged to tack away.

Highlight of the class' year is the Jubilee Cup, a match race dating back to 1887.

Sunday saw Elizabeth II and Contest III lock horns in their upper wind range between the petite finals and finals of the Bermuda Gold Cup. The racing was exciting in the conditions and those familiar with watching the boats gave the impression that the racing was more likely to be concluded with one of the boats sinking or falling over than a screaming duel to the finish line.

Sure enough, after demonstrating one port-starboard split on the first beat it was the red hull of Elizabeth II that made it to the weather mark first with Contest III overlapped and just inside. Unfortunately gybing round the mark Elizabeth II ran into difficulties and with an impressive crash fell smack on her side. The Royal Bermuda YC's Contest III was able to continue up the run alone and uncontested, and approaching the finish line a token crewman dived over board for the benefit of spectator craft. Great fun for those sailing and spectators alike...Roger Mello

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