Sailing for a world championship
Herb Motley of Jaffrey took a trip to Norway to compete in a series of world-class boat races
Sailboats race across the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Norway during the World Championship of the International One Design class of racing sailboats.
Herb Motley of Jaffrey at the helm of a sailboat during the World Championship of the International One Design class of racing sailboats in Tonsberg, Norway.
Sailors aboard their boat during a World Championship race.
Editor’s note: Herb Motley, who lives in Jaffrey, spent the last week of June in the Norwegian port of Tønsberg, competing in the World Championship of the International One Design class of racing sailboats. Here’s his account of the experience.
Tønsberg, Norway — Not often in life do we have the opportunity to compete in a World Championship. Seven races were held over a five-day span with a unique twist — you don’t bring your own 7,000-pound boat. You sail in the fleets of the host and competitors sail a different boat in each race!
Entries are selected from the 11 worldwide fleets based on their standings in a local qualification series of races. The previous summer I earned the invitation to represent Marblehead, Mass., fleet.
Other U.S. fleets are located in western Long Island Sound in New York, Fisher’s Island, N.Y., Nantucket, Mass., Northeast Harbor, Maine, and San Francisco, Calif.. There is a fleet in Chester, Nova Scotia, and one in Bermuda. European fleets are in the U.K., Sweden, and two fleets in Norway, where the original boats were built. So this regatta was also an IOD homecoming.
Designed in 1935-36 by the Norwegian naval architect Bjarne Aas, these graceful 33-foot yachts have raced continuously for more than 75 years. “One Design” means the boats are all the same, as equal as man can make them. And all of the original boats were built of wooden molds that were buried during World War II to keep them out of the hands of the occupying Nazis.
The results of the regatta are important and, in this one, four boats had a chance for the championship on the last downwind leg of the last race. But for all competing teams, the time spent in a new country and learning its ways provides an enriching life experience. Competitors are housed with local families, so during the week we got a real taste of the local culture. Hearing the morning news on the radio in Norwegian reminds you that you’re not in Kansas anymore.
Tønsberg is the major sailing center on the west coast of the Oslo Fjord about 90 miles south of the capital city. Stretching away from the coastline is a beautiful archipelago of granite islands, much like the coast of Maine with rocky points worn smooth by the last glaciers. Racing may take place out in the main fjord or on two more protected areas inside the islands. And being June, of course, it never gets dark, so the racing can go well into the evening if the wind is better. (At the 1994 regatta there, a wedding had to be postponed two hours until the day’s racing was completed. But it was full daylight at 9 p.m. so the ceremony went off without a hitch. )
Courses are set for each race using portable buoys. The standard layout is a windward-leeward course sailed around twice. The first race mark is set directly into the wind about a mile from the starting line to provide roughly equal time sailed on both the zig and the zag as the boats sail toward the mark. If the wind changes direction during the race, the mark will be moved to keep it fair. When the boats reach the top mark they turn and sail directly back downwind as they set brightly colored spinnakers. Legs may be up to two miles in length, determined by the wind strength. When it blows harder, the legs are longer.
I’ve had many years of racing experience. Sailing since childhood, I began competing in this fleet as a crew member in 1977. For about 15 years I crewed for the current world champion, Bill Widnall of Lexington, Mass., which gave me the experience of sailing in almost all the various ports where the Internationals are sailed, including an earlier Worlds here at Tønsberg in 1994. I bought my own wooden boat in 2000 and restored her to racing trim. (I’m also co-author of a colorful coffee table style history of the class.)
Since none of my regular Marblehead crew was available to make the trip to Norway, I turned first to Ron Young, a San Francisco boat owner. I had crewed for Ron in an earlier world championship and at Bermuda Race Week, so two good friends traded roles. We became the “California Chrome” team with the addition of Trevor Foss and Remy Margerum, college sailors from UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara respectively. Finally, Espen Eggen from Norway was added to provide some “local knowledge” of conditions on the race course. The team arrived a day early for the regatta so we could have one day on a boat together to “learn everybody’s name.”
Sunday dawned (if you can use that term in the Norwegian Summer) cloudy and cold with a brisk wind from the north. The Race Committee sent the boats onto the southern course several miles from the yacht harbor. They first staged a practice race just once up and back to be sure everyone was familiar with the signals and working these boats. Then the real competition began!
Fourteen teams made up the regatta. This included three previous World Champions, Bill Widnall, who sails in the Marblehead Fleet, Penny Simmons from Bermuda and Charlie VanVoorhis, an architect from Mattapoisetts, Mass., who does his sailing at Fishers Island, N.Y. Bill has won 10 championships, Penny seven and Charlie three.
Charlie set the tone early by winning the first race and taking third in the second. Winner of the second race was a surprise to some, Rich Pearce from San Francisco. He was followed by Martin Rygh of the host fleet. Despite a gratifying second-place finish in the practice race, our team had to settle for an 11th and a seventh in the scored races. One surprising factor — even to the Norwegians — was a very strong current running down the center of the course, which meant you wanted to sail out at the edge of the course going to windward to avoid the current when it was against you, and then try to sail in the strongest flow going down wind to get the maximum boost from the ocean pushing you along the bottom!
Monday was a warmer day with a gusty north wind and the Race Committee kept the fleet on the nearest racing area to the yacht club of the three available. As is often the case in shifting winds, plans can go badly. I started the race near the committee boat at the windward end of the line. The team was in a good position right after the start, but the decision to tack away to the right side of the course was a bad guess as all the boats to the left got a good wind shift, leaving our team on the outside and suffering a disappointing 13th place finish out of 14. After a boat change and a bite of lunch, our chances improved slightly, moving up to 9th. One difficulty in the sport of sailing is how to make a plan for each race shortly before it starts. Getting a good position and holding it may be a result of changing your plan entirely as you recognize a change of wind conditions and scrap the first plan entirely. In very short races like these getting a good start is important, because often there isn’t much way to catch up later. At the end of four races on Monday, the cream had risen to the top. Charlie Van Voorhis won the second race to take the regatta lead closely followed by Penny Simmons from Bermuda scoring a first and second. Notable about Penny’s second race was the fact that he was over the starting line early and had to go back to restart. The true test of his championship skills was his ability to crawl back up through the entire fleet after restarting to finish the second race of the day in second place.
One of the charms of the Scandinavian countries is their high latitude — 59 degrees north at Tonsberg. The 23rd of June this year was MidSummer Night on the longest day of the year. Kids come home to celebrate like kids in the U.S. come home for Christmas. No social events were planned for the regatta as many of the locals were having family celebrations. Our team headed for the supermarket to get the fixings for a steak dinner! Of course many foods are packaged differently from the U.S. and language doesn’t help. A very lovely Norwegian lady with an 8-year-old daughter was gracious enough to help out. Then during the dinner, she called to invite us to join her and her boy and girl at one or more local bonfires set along one of the channels where many pleasure boats continued a parade of celebration. Here families gather along the beach to picnic and play and enjoy the (barely) setting sun. Dragging our weary bodies home at midnight, we were in twilight; the sun hadn’t gone far.
After two days of relatively strong winds in the 12-15 knots range, Tuesday dawned with a new weather system and very light air. The Race Committee set up using the course area nearest to the Yacht Club and placed the racing marks, but shortly before the scheduled 11 a.m. first start they fired two guns for a postponement. The promising breeze faded to nothing and after a short wait a signal was given to move back to Sunday’s area further south in hope of finding some wind.
There were several boats on hand to tow the competitors to the new area and our crew was nearest to an inflatable boat run by a competent man accompanied by a particularly gorgeous Norwegian girl. The first knot on the towline let go and the boat circled back again much to the delight of the crew. Soon the towboat was hooked up again, but one of our crew was so distracted by the vision of loveliness on the next boat that he fell overboard!
In the first race a different set of skills was called for in the light shifty wind. The Motley team had more success in these conditions and the crew benefited from two days’ sailing together. The result was a satisfying sixth place.
The high drama for the team came in the second race of the day. Timing our distance from the starting line, we got back just a little late and were forced to the wrong side of the committee boat and had to circle back for a bad start. Fortune smiled, however, when two guns sounded to signify a general recall and a restart. This time we got back to the line with good speed, sailed over most of the boats and rounded the first mark in second place.
This elation was short lived as we fouled another boat and by the rules we had to make two complete turns as other boats went by. The good part of the very light air was that the rest of the fleet didn’t sail away from us very far, so we still had a chance to catch them. We had some luck in staying with the favorable current and after another trip up and down the course, we were able to sail around a pack of leaders at the leeward mark and capture second in the race.
The two good races moved us up in the standings from 11th to 7th!
The last race of a regatta is a frantic event with all of the boats desperate to protect their place in the standings or, best case, catch one of the boats ahead and move up in the standings. Encouraged by our second place in race six, we returned to the race course with high hopes of actually winning a race in this series. We moved aggressively at the start, sailed fast, and rounded the first mark in first place! Three boats moved past us on the downwind run, dropping us back to fourth at the beginning of the second beat. We tacked in to the left hand shore where we had found success before. Boats traded places up the beat and we were very much “in the hunt.”
At this point in the race, four boats still had a chance to win the championship. Boats sailed through the leeward mark —a gate where you could choose either side — left or right. We chose the right side of the gate and shortly tacked back to our friendly left-hand shore. Two trailing boats, however, felt there was nothing to lose by a contrary idea and kept going right, finding an entirely different wind direction which led them straight into the mark! We overtook some boats in the final run, including the series leader, Charlie Van Voorhis, which cost him the championship.
Our 7th place seemed good enough to hold seventh place overall, but it turned out that one of the two boats who went right won the race and was just able to move up a place over us, leaving us 8th for the championship.
In the front of the fleet things jumbled into place where both the first and second and the third and fourth were tied on points with one point separating the four boats. Ties were broken based on the number of first place finishes. Bermuda’s Penny Simmons was crowned world champion — his eighth — over Norway’s Marting Rygh, whose highest finish was a second (twice!). Thanks to being passed by the Motley team, Charlie Van Voorhis dropped to third, one point back of the leaders, but saving his position over Nantucket’s Pierre Crosby with two wins to Crosby’s one.
The entire fleet celebrated with a voyage on a traditionally-built replica of a Viking ship. In a spirit of solidarity and friendship we all took to the oars, rowing her up Tonsberg Harbor into the sunset (well, almost). It was a week of tight competition, good friendships made and renewed, and wonderful hospitality from our Norwegian friends.
Next year’s World Championship will be held in Nantucket. Our newly formed team agreed that if any of the three owners representing Marblehead, San Francisco or Norway qualified for the worlds, we would all sail together again.