Crewless from Wellington by Ivor Wilkins
14 Jul 2014
For a while there the Wellington team of Ben Spencer and Steve Cowper, who have joined the SSANZ Safety at Sea Triple Series, must have wondered if they had ever left the capital.
In the lead-up to the first race of the series, the Baltic 50, Auckland dished up a week of lashing gales and driving rain. "It's like a mild day in Wellington," quipped Cowper as he spliced lineson board the Class 950 Crewless inwinds gusting to 50 knots on the eve of the race.
The pair, with an additional crewman, Mark Cousins, sailed up from Wellington to compete with the SSANZ fleet in the triple series, having missed out on their plan to compete in the Round North Island Race.
"Believe it or not, we didn't have a single tack until we reached the Mercury Islands," said Cowper of the three and half day delivery trip. "It was a fantastic trip."
"We left Wellington Heads under a kite in 20 knots, tightened up to a close reach up the Wairarapa Coast and kept that angle all the way to East Cape, where we had sustained winds of 30-35 knots."
These Akilaria designs, with their wedge shapes and flat bottoms, are not exactly upwind machines, but Spencer and Cowper were pleased to see how the boat handled the conditions. "She was like a race horse, raring to climb through the seas," said Cowper.
The only mishap came when Cousins caught the full force of a breaking wave and smashed the tiller. Conditions eased across the Bay of Plenty and dropped away to light, shifty conditions, forcing them to tack for the first time at the Mercuries and twice more before rounding Cape Colville for an easy slide into Auckland.
Timing is everything and they would have been glad to be safely tied up for the period of sustained easterly gales that lashed the North Island right up to the early morning of the Baltic 50 race.
Then, the wind gods decided enough was enough and abruptly shut off the fans, leaving the fleet to ghost out of Auckland in drifting conditions after a two-hour delay. The race continued in light airs with frequent rain showers, extending into the evening with most ofthe yachts finishing in the dark.
Crewless posted its first SSANZ result with a fifth in the Long Haul Division Two, which was won by the Salona 41, Zealous.
Before the race, 138 entries were posted. A poignant note was the inclusion in that list of Django, Andrew Reid's J111, which was lost at sea on its delivery back from the ANZ Auckland-Fiji Race.
On the day, a creditable 108 boats in 11 divisions turned out to race, with 22 of those being scored as DNF, once again underlining both the popularity of this form of racing and the never-say-die approach they bring to it.
The Wellington yacht is just the latest addition to a very strong fleet that has been steadily growing in strength while other forms of racing have often struggled to maintain numbers.
Ben Spencer, who bought the Class 950 yacht in the Mediterranean, said he was inspired by the Class 40 fleet that stopped over in Wellington during the Global Ocean Race. He adopted the Italian-Spanish pair Marco Nannini and Hugo Ramon on the unsponsored Financial Crisis during the stopover, going so far as to offer them his house for the duration.
"I went away on holiday and left them to it," he said, "but we were together for the final week leading up to the restart. We did a lot of talking about short handed sailing."
This captured Spencer's imagination. He had earlier enjoyed sailing on the canting keeler Ran Tan and recalls crossing Cook Strait at a steady 16-knots."This is the kind of sailing I want to do," he told himself, except he didn't want the hassle of having to run a large crew.
Short handed racing in a fast boat was the answer. "I do not have Class 40 pockets," he said, so the Class 950 was the better option. When he found one for sale in Valencia, Spain, he bought it sight unseen (after having a contact check it over) and shipped it back to New Zealand.
Does he harbour secret ambitions to step up to Class 40? "I am 53 now, so health and fitness are obvious issues. Right now, I am happy to chew off manageable pieces, starting with the 950, and we will see how it goes."
He and Cowper will leave the boat in Auckland for the winter and intend competing in all three of the SSANZ events this year, followed by the Coastal Classic, which they may do double handed as well.