Marvellous Marconi - East Coast Piers Race 2023

July 19th, 2023

For those that have not heard of Marconi Sailing Club it can be found on the River Blackwater and is home to the East Coast Piers Race. Here's what the designated website has to say about the race - "The East Coast Piers Race is a major charity event raising funds to support “The Cirdan Trust” to further support their important work with socially or physically disadvantaged children. The race is based at Marconi Sailing Club on the River Blackwater in Essex and goes all the way up the East Coast to Walton and back."

It was decided to take a Wētā dinghy to this years event and take part in a weekend of racing - Saturday had two inshore races in the river adjacent to the club with Sundays focus being the full distance event for the fast guys. Initially there was a couple of us entered, but with a dire looking forecast with light breezes looking more likely the other Wētā, who had twice the distance to travel than I did, decided to stay at home.

The Wētā met the criteria to enter the shorter Colne Point race which they say is 27miles and takes sailors from the River Blackwater out across an open stretch of water (not sure if it's classed as the North Sea or not?) to Colne Point and return.

Saturday -

After an early start from home I completed the 140ish miles around my anticipated time and arrived at the club just as the smell of breakfast started to waft out the galley windows.

The breeze was light, but more than the forecast had shown for the last couple of days so there was at least a glimmer of hope that we would get some racing in.

The first job was to find a spot to rig and get settled in for the weekend. It appeared that quite a few had arrived on Friday and pitched tents and caravans across the site, but I found a nice little spot that allowed just enough room for me to get a rigged Wētā around the front between the club and the sea wall. Now to get the boat unhitched, unpacked and start rigging!

Getting registered was a smooth affair run by a great team who had obviously done this before. Luckily I had a heads up that there would be handheld flares (which are required to be carried by each participant in Sundays race) available at registration so I collected one of those with the cost going to the charities the event is in aid of.

Back outside to complete rigging, while holding conversations with some interested sailors who had seen the Wētā in print or on show but looked forward to seeing it sailed. Once completed it was time to head for the upstairs galley where I thoroughly enjoyed a 'Full English' breakfast, which filled the gap nicely after such an early start and having been up for about 5 hours already.

There was a slight delay before we could launch as we waited for a bit more breeze to fill in. Despite that we were instructed to get all boats through the flood gate and on to the 'hard' in preparation of launching, making sure we collected our 'tally' band as we went through. It wasn't long before that beeze swung and filled in a bit more - the ok was given and we were getting afloat for the two inshore races.

These were an all in start so things could have got quite interesting with a wide range of craft taking part - SB20, F18s, various Nacra models, Spitfires, Tornado, and a whole menagerie of other dinghies and catamarans - and the Wētā. The course was a simple mark at each end with a gate off the shore almost directly in front of the launch ramp.

What made it more interesting was we were starting on an outgoing tide and with the breeze almost, but not quite, far enough around to unfurl the screecher, certainly the first part of the course was a drag race. I held back a bit so as not to get tangled up with anyone and to try and simply get clear air as the faster 'cats' raced off.

However after sailing up the course imagine my surprise when it appeared most of the fast guys were stationary up the course and those of us who were chasing as best we could were now gaining rapidly, helped somewhat by a change in wind direction that was now behind us. Needless to say as we got closer to the first mark and the new wind direction also picked up all those stationary boats things were about to get a bit tight at that mark.

I managed to pick a nice line with no one inside me as I reached the 3 boat length zone. One very fast cat did try and squeeze in without being successful, requiring a quick bail out as they spun around and found a gap somewhere behind me, but I'll be honest, I have no idea where as I was to busy trying to avoid what felt like the whole fleet rounding the mark at once.

By the end of race one the breeze had filled in nicely and everyone had spread out as expected for a mixed fleet race.

Race two was a similar affair of starting, now with screecher unfurled, and trying to pick the best race line allowing for wind and current. Thankfully the Wētā was going well on the flat water of the river and there was enough breeze to warrant sitting out on the tramp and even occasionally having to get the feet under the straps and hiking out.

With both Saturday races now in the bag, and approximately 24 miles sailed, it was back to shore and a chance to get the air bed inflated and my accommodation sorted for the night. All competitors were required to attend the 6pm briefing for the long race the next day, before enjoying an evening of BBQ food, beers and socialising.

Sunday -

The day of the East Coast Piers Race......... it was an early start to the day with access to the ramp from 7am.

To access the ramp all boats were scrutineered as we went through the flood gate on to the 'hard'. Each boat had to have a Sail Racer GPS tracker, 10m tow line, paddle, compass (digital style Tactik or similar is allowed), one buoyancy aid and handheld flare per crew member. Once again the volunteers manning the entrance were super efficient and knew exactly what to be checking for. As I took my boat down before getting changed I arrived without my buoyancy aid, or my flare which was in my buoyancy aid. They allowed me to take my boat through but before being allowed to launch I had to get those items scrutineered and checked off. I actually found the organisation of the whole process comforting and realised the same management would probably be in place on the water with support boats monitoring the course in case something did go wrong while out on the water.

The faster cats taking on the full distance ECPR were to start 15minutes before those of us taking on the shorter Colne Point Race. There was a total of 50 starters for the Colne Point Race and as a first timer I was unsure how I would go but looked forward to the challenge. They advertise the Colne Point race as 27 miles but with the wind direction almost allowing a straight out and back sail my Velocitek Speedpuck logged a total of 22 miles.

For any one interested you can view a Replay of my race here.

There was some tacking to navigate the way out of the river and to go through the compulsory Bradwell 'gate', and those who had sailed there before certainly had the advantage of knowing some of the local anomalies, wind pockets and bends and how to get out of the river quickly. Once I cleared the head and got out on open water I managed to gain a few places back, and with the screecher unfurled I was hopeful that I could continue this on the return journey. The guys sailing the RS800s got away really quickly and the only time I saw them after the start was as they past me on their return leg from Colne Point towards the Bradwell Gate, and they were looking fast with their asymmetric kites up and both on the wire - I was simply enjoying the race I was having with those around me and the open water experience which differs considerably from the inclosed space of my home club at Farmoor Reservoir. 

Eventually I rounded the Colne Point marker and started my return leg. Initially it felt good with the screecher still flying and holding the gap I had created on some of the Dart18s/16s and some of the other dinghies. At this stage I have to admit to a slight tactical error and probably held the screecher to long and ended up to far across in to the tidal flow coming out of the river which I regretted as those Darts started getting closer and eventually past me some considerable distance to windward.

I also had a number of instances of weed buildup on the daggerboard and rudder blade which I didn't react to quick enough on the return journey - this did not help with boat speed as once cleared there was a considerable increase along with a small amount of muttering from the helm!

Eventually I decided to take the hit and tack across the flow to get closer to shore and hopefully out of the current a bit more. In doing this I found a good course to get back through Bradwell 'gate' and even pulled back some of the distance lost on the cats. By the time I reached the finish I had overhauled a couple of lost places and was already thinking about how I could do things better next year!

Back on shore it was time wash everything down, to hand back the GPS tracker and 'Tally Band', and start packing up for the return journey home, before heading to prize giving.

Imagine my surprise when I heard my name called for 2nd place overall in the two Saturday races. Super stoked at that and hopefully showed the Wētā can be competitive in a mixed fleet environment. I then followed that up with finishing 8th overall in the Colne Point Race (4th dinghy) so there's definitely room for improvement if I can eliminate the tactical errors and monitor the weed build up better.

For my first attempt at this event I was certainly happy. I would love for other Wētā to join me when they run the event next year as I look forward to taking part again.

The confirmed dates for 2024 is the 13th & 14th of July so get them in the calendar now and we'll enjoy a great weekend of racing and socialising.

Fair winds all - hope to see in Rock for the 2023 Weta Rock Swarm (September 22nd-24th)

By Steve Harvey

Saturday evening meal beside the river

Humble accommodation for the night

Entry point to the River Blackwater Marconi Sailing Club

Saturday 2nd place momento East Coast Piers Race 2023

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