HYC hosted the Irish Optimist Nationals in August. Amongst our overseas visitors were three sailors from the Netherlands, of which two were placed first and second overall in the Open event. The winner, Gijs Pelt was supported by Martin Van Wettum (the Optimist boat builder). They were so well hosted in Ireland by the Ruigrok family in Rush that they invited a group of Irish sailors to go to Holland to compete in the Dutch Optimist Selection Trails.
Planning the Expedition
Following the successes of the Dutch sailors at the Optimist Nationals in August, Mick Ruigrok, a frequent traveller to Holland (and father of Alan) set about arranging a trip to Braassemermeer, the 'holy grail of Optimist racing'. The Dutch Optimist Association had kindly agreed to let the Irish sailors take part in their National squad selection trials. With nearly 200 boats taking part, it would give our sailors a chance to race against some of Europe's best oppi sailors and gain invaluable experience of starting in large fleets.
The team consisted of 9 sailors (Alan Ruigrok, Scott Flanigan, Andrew Tyrrell, Andrew Ryan, Ross Darmody, Patrick Dix, Tim O'Laoire all from HYC plus Ed and Jane Butler from RSGYC). Four parents; Pauline Ruigrok, Mary Lawlor, Kevin Flannigan and myself met in Dublin airport at 16.15 on Friday 17th September.
If there was a complaint at this point, it was from the sailors who were giving out that little or no school was being avoided and surely they should have been let off at least three hours early to "pack". From these comments it was obvious there was going to be a lot of wind that weekend (of the hot air variety).
The flight to Amsterdam and picking up our baggage was simplicity itself. We were met at the airport by Mick Ruigrok accompanied by the 'Dutch master' optimist builder, Martin Van Wettum. Martin, along with Gijs Pelt (yes, the winner of the Optimist Championships held in HYC in August). Martin was providing the charter boats and Gijs the coaching to the Irish visitors. Mick had already collected a mini-van and we picked up another car and headed off.
Our headquarters for the weekend was a sail training school south of Amsterdam. It is set on the shores of a lake with a bar, restaurant and gear rooms downstairs and accommodation upstairs. The accommodation is of the hostel variety and was very cosy with rooms of four or six bunk style beds. The warmth and welcome we received put all of us at ease . In no time at all the sailors were running around the place like they owned it.
The drive up to Braassemermeer took about 35 minutes and with the first gun at 11.00 we were up and on the road by 8.30 Saturday in our bright orange mini-van. On arriving at Braassemermeer you could almost taste the excitement in the air. For the Dutch sailors, this was the first weekend of their National Squad selection trials and there was a natural ('pre-exam' type) tension. Unlike Ireland, where the trails are held in the Spring, the Dutch create a squad in September and the sailors train together throughout the winter before the teams are chosen ahead of the Worlds and Europeans.
Anyway, there were 'oppis' everywhere and the car park was packed with camper-vans of every size and description.
The weather forecast had indicated a force 4 going to 5 later and while it wasn't cold, most of our sailors decided to go down the dry-suit route as they would be out all day and there was the possibility of rain.
The marina area is quite spread out and the "Irish" laid claim to a section near one of the launch sites where the sailors were matched with their boats for the weekend. Martin Van Wettum had supplied a mixture of brand new boats and some which had a few more miles under their belts. With transport assistance from Mick Ruigrok, our sailors had brought their own spars, sails, foils and bailers. Some of them also brought their own blocks and mainsheets because it made a different boat feel more familiar. The layout of the club and premises didn't really give a sense of the numbers competing, but once you started heading out to the line all you could see was like a blizzard of white oppi sails.
Before launching Gijs coached us on some aspects of the start sequences and in particular how the courses differed from those at home in Ireland.
The format for the trials was similar to our nationals in terms of breaking the sailors up into four randomly picked groups, with races being broken into two flights of different combinations. The way the courses were laid was different for each flight. The format for the first flight was:
Beat, Reach, Run, Beat, Run, and Beat to Finish.
The format for the second flight was:
Beat, Run, Beat, Reach, Run, and Beat to Finish.
The flights were started 5 minutes apart with the first flight putting in a reach after the weather mark and the second flight putting it in after their second beat. This seemed to maintain a much cleaner separation of the flights.
It is uncanny and maybe a bit of a clich to say 'Dutch efficiency' but all the races took almost exactly an hour and the first gun was at, you guessed it, 11.00 precisely.
One common observation by the Irish sailors was how silent the competitors were on the start-line. There was no shouting and no one screamed abuse. They all just seemed to concentrate on going fast and getting away quickly (now where have you heard that before!).
For the team, one of the main objectives of the trip was to gain experience of starting in large fleets. We wanted to unlock the secrets of getting away fast and holding your lane. We expected to find out sailors somewhat intimidated by having so many "foreign" boats around but to our delight the Irish got stuck in. Ross Darmody in particular pushed his performance by rounding the weather mark in first place in a couple of the races.
To a certain extent Ross's success masked what was actually happening. The Dutch, without exception, were getting off the line quicker than we were. In a line of 80 boats, if you are not on the front row when the gun goes, then you are in deep trouble. From our big support RIB (kindly supplied by Martin), we watched closely to see what was happening. We made the following observations about the Dutch fleet. The sailors were not waiting for the gun before they accelerated. With about 4 seconds to go before the start, they powered-up their boats; by 2 seconds, they were heading-up and anyone who hadn't gone up with them got sailed-over as they bore off slightly on the gun taking any space to leeward that was there.
We had post-mortems after each race with Gijs handing out advice and tactics, one of our sailors told him, 'with 7 seconds to go I was in a great position; with 5 seconds the weather boat had gone over the top of me and with 2 seconds to go I was buried!!!'
Gijs' advice; 'at the start, if the boat to weather goes, go with him, if you don't you are in big trouble and if you are over the line they will see his sail number first not yours'.
This of course has to be taken with a pinch of salt but it does reflect the thought process.
The wind was up and down for most of Saturday, yet the prescribed three races were completed and we headed in at 17.00 exactly.
We were further fortunate in that the weekend of the Dutch selection trials coincided with the local town festival and there were street parties everywhere including a large carnival with lots of stomach-churning rides. We decided that this would be a great antidote to the 'cut and thrust' of the days racing and headed up to the fair for about an hour.
We thought that sailors in the group would be exhausted after racing all day, but instead they just took off around the place like they were possessed! Jane Butler had a 'miraculous recovery' from a back injury suffered earlier in the day and was well enough to strap herself into a large elastic band and be catapulted into the night sky of Braassemermeer. The boys thought this looked like great fun but found (once strapped-in) that the crotch belts were far better suited to girls than boys! The result was that it took at least an hour before they could walk properly again. The parents, who knew better than to be strapped into anything so torturous, thought this was hilarious.
On arriving back at our base we had a very pleasant dinner and were taken on a tour of the Van Wettum Boat factory. I know that I speak for everyone when I say that Martin is a man who is passionate about his boat building; especially the quality of the build process. We could have spent hours there but unfortunately it was running late and we had to head back to the club and pack so we could leave first thing in the morning and head straight to the airport after the racing.
On Sunday, the weather started off lighter than the previous day with a clear sky giving some nice heat from the sun. The forecast was for it to pick up again and sure enough, before the first gun we were experiencing a gusty force 4.
While the format was the same as the previous day there was definitely a change in our team. The previous day, I believe they were understandably uneasy racing at a strange venue with so many foreign boats around them. On the Sunday, I believe they found confidence from the view that the Dutch were just the same as them: same boats, same sails and same aims: to sail fast and win.
Before the race Gijs told us that when he started racing, he was continually late on the start-line. To resolve this problem, his father offered him 10 if he got black-flagged in a race. Being commercially-minded, he accepted the bet but it still took him a lot of starts before he won the 'tenner'. We decided to offer the same incentive to our team so we put up a 10 "Gijs" prize. We reminded them that they wouldn't often get the opportunity to start in fleets this size. We told them to give it their best shot. This really inspired our sailors and they were definitely 'up for it'. So what happened? Well their starts were better, but not one of them managed to win Gijs "black flag" prize in any of the races on Sunday despite how hard they were trying. Obviously, there must be a message in there somewhere.
Sunday passed, all too quickly. Before we knew it, the three races were over, we were loading the boats onto Martin's trailer and packing up the mini-bus. We made Schipol Airport in excellent time, returned our hire cars and even had time to do a bit of shopping in Duty-Free! We got into Dublin by around 20:00 and were greeted by sailors' families.
First was that Mick Ruigrok put a huge amount of work in behind the scenes in organising this trip. In a large way, he was responsible for taking the stress out of the expedition. He made it possible to have a weekend that was very sporting, educational, enjoyable and good 'craic'.
The sailors were a credit to Howth Yacht Club (and the RSGYC in the case of the Butlers!) and to their parents. Both club and family can be very proud of their good behaviour on and off the water. To see young teenagers pull their weight and show such team spirit is very rewarding to the adults that accompany them.
Finally, the experience that the team got was invaluable. I know that it was only two days but in those two days I think the sailors realised that the Irish can mix it with the best. Our sailors had good boat speed most of the time. We know that starting involves practice and technique. If we work the shifts, as Ross showed us in some of the races, we can be right up at the top.
What we learnt is that although we can compete with the Dutch; to win will take more hard work and practice, the right type of practice.
While the objective of the trip was primarily to give our sailors experience in big fleet racing, their results were impressive as most of them finished in the top half of the 151 boat fleet.
30th Ross Darmody
39th Ed Butler
51st Andrew Ryan
59th Tim O'Laoire
69th Patric Dix
71st Alan Rulyrock
followed by Jane Butler, Andrew Tyrell and Scott Flanigan further down the fleet.