02 August 2018
The Portal Company JUNIOR OFFSHORE GROUP (JOG) WEEK – A Newcomer's Perspective
by Lieutenant Colonel Col Gill Duncan Royal Marines
7 hours into the Plymouth to Dartmouth race and the crew of Niki are probably now on their 10thspinnaker gybe, the foredeck crew working the spinnaker pole across the boat to complete the manoeuvre. "Raffles" and "Spectrum", up ahead of us, are straight-lining it for the finish and in the dying winds we’re working the angles to increase our velocity to catch them, both on our corrected-time handicap and across the water. It’s been an exhausting race; a test of patience, tactics and skill to eke out the very last tenth of a knot of boat-speed and staying as close inshore as possible to avoid the strongest of the foul tide. New to coastal passage racing, the Royal Marines Sailing Club (RMSC) team is becoming increasingly proficient and it's addictive stuff.
From distant '90s days at Southampton Institute I well remember the Junior Offshore Group (or JOG) races, now in its 68th year, criss-crossing the Channel and enabling us as young sailors to cut our teeth in handicap yacht racing. The focus has always been on smaller boats, where the competition is fierce and the crews develop seamanship and endurance. It is not the big-budget, sponsor-laden yachts with “rock-stars but the camaraderie is strong and the community tight. We feel lucky to be a new part of it.
The RMSC has entered a four-man team from Operation ATALANTA’s (the EU Maritime Counter-Piracy operation off the coast of Somalia, run from its Operational Headquarters in Northwood) to compete in JOG Week. Run every couple of years; this time from stunning Dartmouth and hosted by the Royal Dart Yacht Club. Our crew of 4 comprises of 2 novices (Majors Tom Mobbs and Chris Hurt Royal Marines), one beginner (Lieutenant Birger Axelsson (Swedish Navy)) and one relative old sea-dog (Lieutenant Colonel Gill Duncan Royal Marines), with the intent to compete in a week’s racing, learning as we go along. The team meets up in Dartmouth on the evening of 20 Jul and is on board early the following morning. The first job is to empty the boat of anything not tied down; trolley-loads of cruising kit from Niki, our elderly but pedigree Sparkman & Stephens 30. Visibly the boat's waterline is rising – each kilo is a another tiny increase in acceleration away from the tack; with light winds forecast for the week ahead it’s going to be critical.
Now lighter we head out for a crash course in sailing, sail trim and race-tactics. Out in Start Bay there is little wind, so we head back into the river, passing close by the moored boats short-tacking and then gybing back and forth with the spinnaker up, terrifying the local boat owners and ferry operators. Nonetheless the lads are learning fast and the drills become slicker as the day progresses. Once back on the mooring we put down two divers to clean the fine layer of riverine film that has built up on the keel and hull to reduce friction – every second counts.
On Sunday morning, ahead of JOG Week, the Royal Dart Yacht Club runs a number of preparatory races (this builds upon Saturday's training). This 18-mile coastal race entails a short beat and spinnaker run to Brixham and back to Dartmouth. Out of the blocks we hold the tail-enders all the way. This is absolutely fine; Niki, at virtually 50 years old, has the lowest handicap so staying in touch means competing strongly against the opposition. As Torbay opens up we find that we can still hold the spinnaker and try to catch the boats ahead of us. The beat home is a mixture of finding the weakest foul tide by keeping close inshore and then heading offshore to find more breeze, nonetheless we stay in contention and as we cross back into Start Bay we’re across the line to complete our inaugural race, in a very respectable forth place on handicap. Later, back on the quay the crew of "Jeopardy 2" express surprise that that our scratch crew is able to sail all the way to the buoy without dropping our green commando-dagger-emblazoned spinnaker. Thinking on it this is the benefit of a good directional stability from the relatively full fin-keel. We store this away in the back of our minds – it's going to be a useful skill as the week progresses.
Monday starts, as much of July has, with very light winds. Much of the JOG fleet has limped in from Portland late the night before, hampered by no wind for hours across Lyme Bay; few have made the time limit and already crews are looking a little sun-battered. Out in the Start Bay the Committee Boat has two short inshore courses for us to navigate. This plays to the fast accelerating modern yachts and polished crews; we have our work cut out on a busy start line; broken into 3 zones “Wally World” (where barging aplenty happens), “Oh God!” (where you pray for a pin end, port tack flyer) and behind the starting line in an ever contracting time space (where we try to stay). We have 2 reasonable starts but the odds are stacked against us. We improve against the 8 in our class with a 6thand 5thplace, as the day progresses. By now we are finding an optimal light-winds set up, which will be crucial through the week. The novices are quickly learning the new sailing jargon; phrases such as “more twist”, “ease on the Kicker / Cunningham” and “more / less power on the headsail” – even more so for Birger who has to translate everything into Swedish! This is progress.
Tuesday; we are set for a long race to Plymouth. Coastal racing requires fewer tight manoeuvres and ought to be less punitive to the older boats. We have a 30-mile beat ahead which should favour us. Niki heads out past Start Point. From the start we’re in amongst the pack and ahead of a couple of our closest competitors. Its roasting hot but the sandwiches and cups of tea keep being handed up from Chris in the galley – this is a marathon and not a sprint. Sailing is a sport requiring both strength and guile – if the tactics are wrong we'll have no chance. An overall plan and timeline with Decision Points en route is critical for each race, which we calculate and brief ahead of each start (military planning has its uses here – particularly the line "no plan survives contact with the enemy!" but it's a baseline to work from). Coming into Plymouth it becomes apparent that the fridge in the hot weather has drained the domestic battery and the instruments, including the chart-plotter, decide to call time on us as we now, with a building wind and hard-charging on a tight spinnaker reach, hurtle towards the only isolated danger mark – appropriately named “Shag Rock”. We just manage to climb above it closing on one of the leaders as they cross the finish line off the Cattedown Breakwater. As hoped we have improved again and move further up the points table with a fourth place but a couple of yachts (Elan 295 "Raffles" and Impala 28 "Spectrum") remain resolutely tough to catch. We drop into seats in Plymouth Yacht Haven’s restaurant to wash down a fabulous seafood platter (with less-fabulous vinegar-pickled cockles) with delicious champagne generously provided by the Portal Company – the week's sponsor– this is the life!