IN PRAISE OF SPEED HQ
Harty plots the evolution of the iconic Weymouth/Portland Speed Trials
I only lived a couple of hours from Weymouth. Nevertheless, cresting the hill above Wyke Regis and getting my first view of Chesil beach and the speed course was as awe-inspiring as the first drive into Ho’okipa beach park. In this pre-internet age, I’d only seen these places on grainy videos featuring people you doubted were human.
The year was 1982, the year after German Jürgen Hönscheid had stunned the windy world by scoring 26 knots on a modified surfboard. With windsurfing reaching epidemic levels, it was impossible to overstate the fanatical interest in the Weymouth trials and the characters involved. Going up and down as fast as you could, seemed to resonate more closely with the common man in that era, than the antics of the Hawaiian wave riders. Weymouth was truly the home of speed. The trials had been going since 1972 and had held the overall world record since 1975 when Tim Coleman clocked 31 knots with his catamaran Crossbow; and then took it to 36 knots in 1980 with his reworked Crossbow 2. This was absolutely where you needed to be if you wanted to go fast.
A qualifying spot was as treasured as a golden ticket to Charlie’s Chocolate Factory. I’d blagged one of the few wildcards due to being English and because I’d been seen sailing a ‘sinker.’ So it was with a deep sense of impostor syndrome that I drove up towards the Portland Heights Hotel for the opening ceremony – which was only strengthened as I entered the reception hall and found myself drinking the sponsor’s green cocktails (thank you Johnny Walker) and rubbing shoulders with Fred Heywood, Baron Arnaud de Rosnay and his new youthful bride Jenna. It was glamorous on a Hollywood scale.
The wind always blew in that era, and two days later in a full SW gale, Fred Heywood, using his iconic wing rig, the inspiration for rotational and cambered sails, broke the 30 knot barrier, beating the old record by 4 knots. It was huge. The trials continued to thrill, but that was the last time the windsurfing record was broken at Weymouth. As speed went global and breaking records became big business, the truth dawned that while it would always be a great place to sail, the Portland track wasn’t going to produce the big speeds the elite aspired to. The windward bank is too high, sheltering the wind where the water is flattest, forcing you out into choppier water.
And then there was the whole business of timing. A couple of stopwatches at either end when you had 60 sailors piling into the start produced a far from level playing field. Runs were missed – always the best ones obviously. Rogue times appeared and if an unknown put in a good speed, it wasn’t believed.
Then there was the computer program… I turned up one year to find I was lying 4th… great result…except that I hadn’t even entered. It had somehow grabbed a speed from the previous year.
Gradually the spotlight moved away from Dorset to spots where the wind was more reliable and the speed tracks straighter and flatter – to Sotavento and Tarifa and then the man-made, ‘cheating’ canals of Port Saint Louis, Saint Maries de la Mer and finally Lüderitz. The Portland event eased into the background, but it never went away.
The new era
Nearly 40 years on from my first Weymouth visit, this past September I rolled into the National sailing Academy, the new HQ for the trials. The mission was to have a quick fly down the old course, generally see how the event had moved on and to meet up with speed icon, Dave White, who was returning to the scene of his many triumphs following his stroke in 2017.
The atmosphere at speed events has always been famously relaxed and amicable – and nothing had changed there. People are more at battle with themselves than each other. I noticed too that speed sailors never die, they just smell that way. There were guys like Kevin Greenslade and Simon Pettifer, who I raced with in the sepia era, who are still at it and flying. What has changed is the organisation. There were no frantic cries of, “Is the course open? Where is the course? What am I doing here? Who am I?” Everyone seemed to know what was going on, which never used to be the case. Much of that is down to the efforts of event organiser Pete Davis (husband of women’s record holder Zara Davis and no mean speedster himself) who introduced GPS timing in 2011.
I caught up with Pete and asked about the phenomenon of Weymouth and where we are today – “It wasn’t until 2008 that Anders Bringdal finally broke Tim Coleman’s course record with a time of 38.48. We all accept that Weymouth is not the fastest by a long way. My first run at Lüderitz was 41.2 knots and I was sheeted out on an average day and not trying. My second run was 43. But that’s not the point. This place has the heritage. It’s like Glastonbury. In 2004 Dunkerbeck turned up. He’d said he’d always wanted to do it because this is where it all began. It’s the home of speed; and he stood in the queue like everyone else – and then came back for the next 3 years.”
One of the great draws of Weymouth is that it’s never been just about the windsurfers. The Amateur Yacht Racing Society (AYRS), affectionately known as the ‘Crankies’, have always been a driving force, turning up every year to try out new ideas and with craft which range from the inspired to the hilarious. Pete Davies – “The AYRS are so important. On Wednesday night they all meet and have 5 minutes to say what they’re up to. It’s all about proving a theory. Lets not forget that without them we wouldn’t have the windsurfers and kites (Jacob’s Ladder was a huge cat powered by kites in 1983). All the crazy theories start here. Peter Larssen entered the trials in 2005 with Sail Rocket 1 and was slower than the Windies. But he reckoned he was onto something, went away and lived in a container in Namibia for ten years and took the second version to 65.54 knots. He still comes down and talks to the Crankies. It’s all about having the freedom to nurture vague ideas until you realise you’re onto something.”
A few minutes later I was out on the course on a foil, and flew by AYRS chairman Fred Ball who was aboard his homemade dinghy powered by a fixed wing rig. His average 500m speed was 2.43 knots. His goal was to see if it actually went. It did.
That’s the spirit.
Harty foiling in tandem with Fred Ball’s DIY fixed wing dinghy. The spirit of Weymouth is alive and well.