lottsa wood

For over six decades west coast sailors have made the annual pilgrimage through the July heat of central California to the cool, clear waters of Huntington Lake, to compete in Fresno Yacht Club’s High Sierra Regatta. At 7,000′ up in the Sierra Nevada range and fringed by pine trees, Huntington Lake offers one of the more scenic sailing venues in CA, plus the enviable boast of predictable winds thanks to the thermal heating effect of the Fresno Valley below. With the first weekend primarily aimed at dinghies and the second more focused on keelboats, as many as 150 boats have been known to travel to one or both of the two race weekends.
One such west coast sailor who is a staunch proponent of the HSR is English ex-pat, Nick Mockridge. Having been the driving force behind getting the Viper 640 to the event some 10 years ago, as well as competing in the Open 5.70 class, Mockridge returned to the lake this year to compete in the ‘keelboat weekend’ in his 111 year old wooden English classic Broads One Design, “Snipe”.
“After a lifetime of racing one-design performance dinghies and sportsboats, bringing a displacement boat to race PHRF is rather a departure for me. I have always believed that racing one design negated the politics and excuses found in handicap racing. But despite that, my passion for classic wooden boats guided me into a class that I have loved since childhood, and so has left me no choice but to adopt a new approach to racing”.
That childhood love is the Broads One Design (B.O.D), commissioned in 1900 by the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club in England and designed by Linton Hope, double gold medalist at the 1900 Paris Olympics and official yacht designer to King Leopold II, King of the Belgians. Hope’s brief was to design a craft suitable for both the inland waters of the Norfolk Broads – a series of interconnected lakes and rivers – and the ever turbulent waters of the North Sea off Lowestoft. “Snipe” was the tenth hull of his inspiration, built and launched in 1906.
“While there are numerous old designs still sailing in Europe, understandably many US sailors find it difficult to appreciate just how old this design is” says Mockridge. “In historical milestone terms, it is older than the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight (1903), Henry Ford’s Model T (1908) and the sinking of the Titanic (1912)”. She’s antique old, and this sort of old doesn’t mean fast, but it does mean characterful.
Certainly “Snipe” added an interesting contrast to the weekend, her varnished wooden hull and gaff rig jostling for position amongst such modern and sporty glass/carbon classes as the Viper 640, J70, 11 Meter, Flying Tiger, etc. “That’s the great thing about the High Sierra Regatta” Mockridge continues. “You can be as competitive or laid back as you wish, and because of the superb conditions and the camaraderie you’re still going to have a great time.
I made the HSR a family affair this year, racing with my youngest son and my sister & brother-in-law from England. But they’re also my A-team; it may be a fun regatta but most crews come here to kick posterior”. Indeed, a number of fleets demonstrated that just because the course was on a pretty lake, it didn’t mean that fighting for the best start wasn’t going to cause general recalls. And at the conclusion of the weekend, the podium places for both the Thistle and Moore fleets had to be ascertained on countback and the top three places in the Sportsboat fleet were separated by just 1 point each. Only in the PHRF A fleet was there total domination, with the Wylie Wabbits clearly reveling in the moderate breezes and flat water to take the top 4 places overall.
And how did “Snipe” fare? “Bloody awfully!” laughs Mockridge. “After years of being at the front of one-design fleets we found ourselves near the back of our PHRF fleet. Being a gaff rig we couldn’t point nearly as high as our Bermudan counterparts and so lost our lane and were spat out of the back quickly, and the inefficient full keel configuration and terribly short waterline length (just 16′ 6″ for a 24′ boat) limited our speed through the water.” But as he points out, if he wanted to compete on a fair and even playing field he should have stuck to one-design racing. “I gave PHRF SoCal the unenviable task of trying to create a rating for a boat they’d never heard of, let alone seen! They had no historical race data upon which to base their calculations, and there were no other full-keel designs or gaff-rigged designs to guide them. I think they made a jolly good effort, but based on my past results I feel that a little tweaking is in order. But then again, what PHRF boat owner doesn’t think his/her rating needs a little tweaking?!”
While the racing may be the focal point of the weekend, the High Sierra Regatta isn’t just about the competition; it’s as much about the time spent ashore. There are no hotels at the lake, so accommodation is limited to rental cabins or bring-you-own RV or tent to set up home in one of the many US Forest Service campgrounds. Sitting round a camp fire with fellow regatta members and/or family eating s’mores and telling war stories is very much part of the weekend, but for those who prefer to have their meals catered, Fresno YC also puts on a serious feast. Sore heads reigned on the Sunday morning but the racers groggily took to the water, undeterred by the over-excesses of the night before.
With another successful High Sierra Regatta in the books of the Fresno Yacht Club, most of the competing boats have scattered to the winds, returning to their home clubs elsewhere in CA, AZ, NV and OR. Snipe has returned to Santa Barbara where she sails under the burgee of the Santa Barbara Sailing Club. “She may have been designed to take on rough coastal conditions”, says Mockridge, “but that was over 100 years ago. I can’t risk losing her; she’s irreplaceable. Because of her low freeboard I prefer to sail her in relatively smooth waters and Santa Barbara, with its along-shore winds, makes for perfect sailing conditions. We’ve had her out in 20 knots, but because the Santa Barbara waves are pretty benign even in that sort of breeze, she’s had no difficulty in powering over them despite her age”.
Southern California is not a hotbed for either wooden boats or classic boats, so “Snipe” stands out as a bit of an anomaly. The first 31 Broads One Designs, built between 1900 and 1939 were initially constructed of cedar planking, but later boats were mahogany. Either way, they were designed to be wet sailed, and because “Snipe” is dry sailed and kept on her trailer in the SBSC boat yard, the warm, dry SoCal climate created an unexpected problem for Mockridge. “The first time we launched and sailed her we were surprised to discover that it was necessary for me to work the bilge pump almost constantly, while my non-sailor children gamely steered and controlled the sheets. After an hour I think there was more Pacific Ocean inside the boat than out!” This is because the cedar planks both above and below the waterline had dried out and shrunk, causing the seams to leak. “I ended up lining the bilge and cockpit interior with wet towels in order to swell the planks and close up the seams. I’m so used to sponging out and toweling dry a boat after sailing, that adding moisture and leaving the boat wet was a totally alien concept”. However, this approach was evidently successful as only brief and occasional pumping was required during the High Sierra Regatta.
The Broads One Design class may now be 117 years old, but it is still raced actively throughout the Norfolk Broads, with racing fleets approaching 30 boats being frequently seen for the big class events. And while the design hasn’t changed since its inception, construction methods have: in 1987 a fiberglass mold was created and after a build hiatus of nearly 50 years, low-maintenance glass boats, fitted out with wooden cockpit and spars, started to race alongside the original wooden boats. Over the last thirty years, 57 fiberglass boats have swelled the original 31 woodies to 88 Broads One Designs launched. “Buying a new plastic B.O.D. would have been the smart choice for SoCal sailing” says Mockridge, shaking his head ruefully, “especially as they’re almost indistinguishable from the wooden boats. But I’m a sucker for wood and for owning a piece of history. I’ve made my bed and now I have to lie in it!”