Sep 28

John Cope Trophy – Graham Douglas’ report

Sunday 20th September 2020

The date had a nice equilibrium, the weather was set fair and as if to add some extra interest to a downriver race the wind was the opposite of prevailing. All this was holding out the promise of a good day on the water for the eight challengers for the John Cope Trophy.
This trophy race needed to differ from a standard downriver race that is often a composite of two races combined into a single score. This normally works well as the race fleet gets a chance to regroup and pause for a breather as well as the chance to scoop up any stragglers before restarting for the upwind home leg.

But trophies need to be earned and the race officer was in the mood to set a challenge. As much for himself as for the sailors. The plan was to set a single course downriver and back. One that attempted to be fair to a mixed fleet and one that was worthy of the trophy.

The dilemma is to try and avoid the rich getting richer. Put the turning mark down too late and you give the front runners an advantage of returning on the flood tide as the slower boats have to push a foul tide just to reach the buoy. Lay the mark too early and the speedsters at the front turn and park up facing the last of the ebb and the fleet compresses around the turning point. To be as fair as possible the tide should turn just as the mid-fleet boat on handicap reaches the mark.

Enough of the race officers concerns. Better get this show on the road.

Safety briefing done, tick; list of sailors completed, tick; safety boats launched, tick; a clear statement that the start would be at 11:45, tick. A conversational distraction, the need for a quick comfort break and a glance at the watch suggested that all of a sudden it was time for the bell to toll. Thank goodness Eric had set up the zulu and the blue peter flags earlier.

We rushed up to the race box with moments to go. Looked out of the window in a panic that we were going to be late only to find the slipway covered in rowing boats being recovered, oh so slowly. But more importantly all the sailing boats were still on the grass, Leonardo was still holding a powertool of some sort. Six minutes to the start!

Eric wondered what the best plan might be. Perhaps sensing what had once looked like a well-managed plan was just about to be exposed as a complete fail. Stick to the plan I said hurriedly as the clock and tide waited for no-one. As Eric raised the ‘Z’ flag and I dinged the bell I’m not sure who was the most surprised. The sailors, the safety boat crew, Eric or me.

Somehow the rowing boat cleared the ramp, the boats were launched and by the time the ‘P’ flag was lowered at 1 minute to go all eight boats were afloat. Not all had a helm in the right place, but with Kevin being a huge help on the beach we were looking good to start. No trial runs up and down the start line at this club. It’s all or nothing. The thoughtful placement of the spotlight post on the Fulham side aligning perfectly with our startline was a bonus. Micheal in the Laser was easily 5 boat lengths clear when the bell rang.

As the wind was NE the port-tack start put everyone over to the south shore by the time they reached the rowing clubs and Ranelagh SC’s clubhouse. Most opted to short tack on that side to avoid the trees in Bishop’s Park. Even so the wind was fickle and Jakob was proving adept at reading the runes. By the time both Putney’s bridges were astern Jakob was in the lead with Renato and Henry responding to the challenge.

The safety boats met mid-river and discussed the need for a large sticker to identify the crucial engine-lowering lever. Thanks to David’s persistence this tiny metal flap had been located and fortunately we had two safety boats in operation. With Eric driving and the race officer relaxing in the bow we kept track of the fleet as it spread out down the river.

Seeing Ranalagh on the return leg of what had obviously been a downriver race of their own was mildly disconcerting. Have we got the timing wrong? Did they know something we didn’t? After a quick detour to the pile of the next bridge to see what the tide was doing we reasoned that it was Ranalagh who had been a bit over keen, not us.

With an equinoxial 6m range we still had plenty of ebb to go. But with the sun being aligned to the equator exerting a particularly strong pull on the water these equinoxial ‘great tides’ mean there is a lot of water to move around. We had better not get this wrong. But we had a problem. The safety boat had just radioed to say that Leonardo in the Streaker had beached for a minor repair or adjustment. The fleet was getting spread out. We were just past Battersea Bridge and it was clear that something had changed. The water at the edges was slack, even if the middle was still flowing downstream. Time to drop the buoy.

Jakob had maintained his lead and turned first. Wisely heading straight to the edge to capitalise on the slack water for the return. Renato, then Henry had all made great progress. Then the tide door shut. With a bang. Micheal (he of the great start) made it round, but Andrew in the last Laser had to have a number of attempts before he could round the mark. The tide was starting to flood and the wind was dying. The elements were playing a cruel game. The Solos of Peter and Sara struggled to make the turn. 

The return still had a card to play. It was downwind and Jakob was getting hauled in by Renato. The two of them pulling away from the rest. Using all the tricks in the book, and a few in a book yet to be written Renato claimed his place at the front. The tide was still far out at the club and in just short of an hour and a half after the start there was a mere 36 seconds between them at the end and 16 minutes separating the race fleet. 

Andrew was caught by the handicap having beaten the Solos on the water, but by the time the calculator had been brought to bear, he slipped to 7th place. All in all a great race and a worthy trophy winner.