How Does Dinghy Racing Work?
Watching a sailing race from the shore can be a very confusing business and it can be very difficult to work out what’s going on. Often it’s not clear when the race has started, where the course goes, which boats are taking part or even when the race has finished. For most of the season, Sunday races start at midday and 2:30pm.. For the half-hour before each race, more dinghies tend to appear on the water and sail up and down, checking that the boat is set up properly and sailing well, assessing the strength and direction of the wind and so on. The start line for all the races is opposite the Watersports hut and Boat park (see the plan of the lake), but races may start in either direction up the lake or back towards the dam), (depending on the direction of the wind. As the start time approaches, all the boats racing tend to mill around just behind the start line, getting ready for the start. To help the sailors, a hooter is used to indicate the time; the first blast comes five minutes before the start, the second four minutes beforehand, the third one minute beforehand and then a final hoot to indicate the start itself. If you can see the Watersports hut, you’ll also notice different flags being hoisted on the flagpole in front and then the flags being pulled down when the start hooter sounds.
At the start, all the boats gradually head off in roughly the same direction and the race is under way. The layout of the course for the day’s race will vary from week to week. There are a number of buoys used for setting the course; in some cases, these can be confused with the buoys for mooring boats, but the location of the racing buoys are marked on the plan of the lake and it should soon become clear which ones are being used. A typical race can involve lots of going to and fro in different directions before returning back to the start line; for example, they might start by heading down the laketowards the dam, round the dam buoy, then up to the inlet and then far buoys, before heading back down the lake to the west buoy and back to the start. Usually, the boats will do three laps round the course, though this can be shortened to two or even one if the wind drops and makes progress slow-going.
Video of racing at Upper Tamar
A video of club racing, shot and edited by John Dabbs, which is available on YouTube, gives an excellent idea of what it is like to sail at Upper Tamar:
A second YouTube video, also shot and edited by John Dabbs, shows how different sailing can be on a breezy day:
Dinghy Handicapping System
Even a casual glance at a race in progress on Tamar Lake will show that often different types of dinghies are taking part in the same race, with one sail or two, one, two or even three crew and so on. Obviously some of the dinghy classes are quicker than others and the faster ones gradually draw clear of the slower, until in the latter stages of the race the dinghies can be strung out all round the course, with some of the slowest sometimes even being lapped.
At the end of the race, the hooter is blown as each dinghy crosses the finish line until the last has finished. To compensate for the fact that some types of dinghy are faster, the finishing times of each dinghy are taken as it crosses the line. When the very last boat has finished, a complex handicapping system (known as the Portsmouth Yardstick) is applied to finishing times and the results calculated. The results of this handicapping system mean that the first boat to cross the line will often turn out not to be the eventual winner.
As if all this isn’t enough, on some occasions the club runs a different type of event, known as a Pursuit Race. In this, the boats start at different times (slowest boats starting first) and then sail round the course for a fixed length of time (often an hour). The calculations are done so that, in theory at least, all the boats will be finishing in roughly a line as the hour is up, so this can make for a very exciting finish. At Tamar Lake, the handicapping calculations for pursuit races also take into account how well (or badly) the different skippers have done in previous races; those who have previously done well receive an extra penalty, whilst conversely those who have done poorly have their handicap reduced. As a consequence, both the stronger and weaker sailors in the club have a good chance of being successful in the Pursuit Races.