The Sigma 38 class knows how to enjoy itself. Last year the national championships took place in south west Ireland as part of the festival of racing and drinking that is Cork Week, and this year the fleet set sail to St Malo in Brittany where Dinard yacht club were to host a series of races and parties.
Arbitrator's crew of LCSC and Sons members came 4th last year, and with another mix of rowers and sailors we were aiming for even better things this time. In our way, however, stood others with exactly that ambition, including Highland Spirit and Mefisito - who had raced hard and successfully through the rigours of the Hamble winter and spring series, while Arbitrator and her crew remained firmly warm and dry on land.
The Sigma 38's met up in the basin right next to St Malo old town, with its many inviting bars and restaurants, in which crews were to be found rehydrating after the St Malo RORC race. First stop on the official agenda is a cocktail party on the roof of Dinard yacht club - to which we are ferried over in a vedette or catamaran. We draw first blood on Highland Spirit when one of her crew asks us for Natalie's phone number. Lex, who along with Natalie was part of Arbi's crew for the St Malo race, shows initiative in exchanging his own phone number for the sum of 5 euros (a sum the other male members of Arbi's crew feel to be outrageously low). By the time the truth is out both Natalie and Lex are safely back in London.
Our feelings of superiority over Highland Spirt are to prove short-lived. The first day's racing sees us over the line in both races and we battle our way through the fleet to finish 4th both times. Meanwhile ahead of us Highland Spirit and Mefisto show a clean pair of heels to the rest of the fleet, with Highland Spirit demonstrating why she had been pretty much undefeated since purchase by her new owners, former 707 sailors, the previous autumn.
Bar stories that night circulate around whether Highland Spirit can be stopped from turning the championships into a procession behind her. Our own standing is currently 4th, equal on points with el Greco but behind on count back.
The next day, another perfect sunny sailing day, sees an earlier start and 3 races. After a more cautious start - but where we succeed in pushing el Greco over the line - we are 3rd round the windward mark and immediately gybe off at a tangent to the whole of the rest of the fleet. The tactic pays off as the mark hoves into view with us by now in the lead - one we are to hold for the rest of the race but with Highland Spirit in close pursuit.
The second race is a 'coastal' (or round the cans) race and we learn we are to go round a danger mark below some splendid cliffs with a castle on it - but with the nature of the danger unclear. This time to our relief it is Highland Spirit's turn to be over the line - and clearly failing to believe their own fallibility they take a long time to re-cross. We have a cat-and-mouse race with Mefisto, accompanied by much banter between the boats, while our navigator notes that his job is much more stressful when we are in the lead. It turns out we have to 'tack' our spinnaker round the danger mark - so it maybe is very aptly named. Mefisto impressively achieves this by simply dropping the spinnaker on the deck and re-hoisting - we go for the slower option of a speedy re-pack. We watch with some relief as their bold manouvre ends with a twisted spinnaker - and we set off on the next leg just behind them and still comfortably ahead of the rest of the fleet.
The last mark sees Mefisto try a very last minute spinnaker drop. Mindful of his crew's limitations our skipper is slightly more cautious, and it pays off when, after the drama that always seems to accompanying our spinnaker drops, we look up to see Mefiisto with her halyard flying from the top of the mast and their lead on us vanished. We close tack up to the mark to take a second successive gun, after 2 hours of very close racing.
With Highland Spirit managing only a 7th place it is now all on the last race. This is to be another, shorter, coastal race. Our starting technique is by now perfect and we cross first, but never manage to shake off Highland Spirit. The second last leg, a run with gybe, sees their noticeably smoother spinnaker technique let them through, and we chase them to the finish. We cheer Highland Spirit over the line, believing them to be the series winners - level on points with us but ahead on count back, and with Mefisto 3rd - but we hadn't reckoned on the bad blood between those two and on Highland Spirit's litigious tendencies.
After reminding ourselves that we would have very cheerfully settled for 2nd place that morning we enjoy some well-earned tinnies on our sail back to the marina. But we later learn (when Mefisto comes over to borrow our rules book) that Highland Spirit have protested Mefisto for allegedly pushing them onto the committee boat at the start of that day's 2nd race.
We choose to ignore worrying about the protest outcome and concentrate on doing what we are best at in celebrating a fabulous day's racing. This continues when we have again been whisked over the bay to Dinard yacht club, for a dinner and the prize giving.
Even our thirsts have been quenched and we are beginning to get hungry, and there is still no sign of the protest committee. Finally we get to sit down for dinner, but we are told we still have longer to await the results. We finally learn that Highland Spirit have been disqualified from the 2nd race - leaving us as overall winners
We are presented with an enormous trophy - great for filling with bubbly (as Dinard yacht club thoughtfully do) but which we fear is too tasteless to be allowed to grace LCSC's trophy cabinet. Our skipper even makes a speech - thanking not his mum but Dinard yacht club for their excellent race organisation and hospitality. The rest of the evening passes in a merry haze until we are taken back to our boat by vedette at 2am.
Next year sees the Sigma 38s back in Cork Week (and we will be there), but in the meantime protest committees should beware - another battle between Arbitrator, Mefisto and Highland Spirit looms in the form of the Fastnetů
Crew (from left to right on boom in photo):
Jeremy Whiting, Ben Smith, Joe Cross, Peter Horton, Peter Hopps (skipper), Hilary Cook, Val Nedialkov and Simon Reynolds.