Seagull race goes National

Friday 4th December 2009

Seagull race goes National

Racing with Seagulls



Congratulations to Mike Baker on a very impressive article in Practical Boat Owner on the Seagull Race  - its in this months edition (they call it the January one)  so rush to the shop if you want it -   (I notice there is also an article on how to build a strip maple canoe if anyone is getting really bored this winter) !

Got some great photos of last years event in a 2 page spread anywayWe've been asked if we can reproduce the text for anyone who does not get to see the magazine so it follows below





Mike Baker recounts what sailors in his part of Cornwall do when their boats are tucked up warm for the winter. Pictures by Bernie Gibbons.

“When it started it was running backwards. The pull cord didn’t disengage and the wooden handle was whizzing round the top of the engine so I couldn’t get near it to stop it. Then the retaining nut on top of the assembly undid itself and the cover plate, starting assembly and pull cord flew off the top of the engine and disappeared below the water,” a voice behind me was explaining. “So the engine’s had it then?” his companion asked. “Oh, no! I went back at half tide and the wooden pull handle was floating on the surface. I gave it a tug and the assembly came up from the bottom, so I put it all back together last night.”

It’s a Friday in late December, we are in The Ship on the night before the 21st Lerryn British Seagull race, and accounts are being traded, some more plausible than others, of the preparations for this annual event. The race is, in the words of the race announcement, “open to any non-planing hulled craft with a crew of at least two, using only traditional (twin-legged) Seagull engines for propulsion”

Like all the best classic races, the first started with a bet, in this case between Norman Douglass and Frank Stevens in the bar of the Royal Fowey Yacht Club. They were to race from Lerryn to St. Winnow, using only Seagull engines. Word got round and on the day of the race there were more than 20 entrants. Since then it’s been held annually, although numbers have grown and the course and the format change a bit each year.

The race is organized by the RLYS (River Lerryn Yacht Squadron), an august organization whose international headquarters is the first table on the right behind the door at The Ship. Lerryn stands on the river of the same name at the upper end of a branch of the Fowey estuary, with the River Fowey and the Fowey branch of the estuary about a mile downstream. St. Winnow and its charming waterside church is a further mile upstream on the Fowey, and for many years the race followed the course of the first one, the first lap from Lerryn to St. Winnow, and the second, handicapped on the basis of the time over the first lap, back to Lerryn. However, if a bit of a wind picks up the main estuary can be a bit choppy and because of safety concerns over this and some outrageous cheating over the handicapping, the organizers have more recently kept the race in the Lerryn River.

Tomorrow dawns and I wrap up warm in oilies and a lifejacket and stumble out to find my skipper, Chris, and his boat. He’s registered and collected the sailing instructions but neither of us feels inclined to read them, assuming that everything of importance will be included in the pre-race briefing. Norman Douglass, now RLYS Vice Commodore, does the briefing, emphasizing the importance of avoiding collisions on pain of disqualification, but doesn’t mention the importance of adhering to the traffic separation scheme at the one narrow point.

We make our way to Chris’ boat, a small and rather battered dinghy with two Seagulls mounted on the back. We push off and Chris turns his attention to starting one of them. It bursts into life and we set off across the channel. Lerryn being at the top of the estuary, it dries completely at half tide or earlier. One of the difficulties the organizers have is arranging the race for a weekend when the tide is sufficiently high at a practical time of day to enable the boats to float. There isn’t much water and we promptly find out just how little when the engine starts mixing the mud on the bottom with the prop. We fight our way back to the channel but by the time we do we are too late to be on the start line for the start.

The noise is appalling. There are 49 official entries and some folk have turned up too late to register, but start just the same. Over half the boats have two or more engines and as we head off downstream, skippers are desperately pulling starting cords to get their second and third engines going. The sound of around 80 Seagull engines on full song is deafening, and the air is thick with half-burnt two-stroke. My skipper’s wife, getting to Lerryn a bit late, could hear the noise from two miles away.

The rig of the day is “Party Time” and there are prizes for best-dressed crew and best-dressed boat. We have not been very ambitious on this score, our fancy dress running to a paper party hat each and a balloon from a restaurant we went to three days ago, which I’ve tie to the bow of the boat. But others have responded well, and there is lots of dressing up both to the theme of a celebratory party (one boat has a complete disco on board, although it is travelling very slowly), and also on the political party theme (the “Green Party” is entirely dressed in green with green faces and green hair, in a green boat; the Seagull party boat is manned by well dressed canvassers with appropriate rosettes).

The course will take us to Brockles Quay, just before the point where the Lerryn joins the Fowey, and we have to go round twice. We settle down to keeping the boat pointing in the right direction, not going aground, and missing other boats. Oh! And going the right way round buoys. We reach the narrows and, faced with a marker in the middle, despite not having read the sailing instructions, my skipper elects to take the starboard channel, a policy he sticks to throughout the race (thus avoiding disqualification). I am holding down the front of the boat, but he gives me a very long tiller extension whilst he starts the second engine. We leap forward with a barely perceptible increase in speed.

The course is well furnished with safety boats, ready to rescue drowning competitors and to tow broken down boats out of the way. At the buoy we have to go round at Brockles Key there is a large Committee Boat, full of cheering folk who have been co-opted to the committee for the day. As we start the return lap of this first leg we are in the middle of the field and find ourselves having to avoid other boats behind us coming the other way and dodge other boats whose Seagulls have stopped for one reason or another. Most of the skippers of these casualties haven’t given up yet and are tugging with increasing desperation at starting cords. We also get the opportunity to admire those of our competitors behind us with amazing fancy dress. As we go a bit further we see the leaders coming back on their second lap, some of whom are also stunningly attired.

At this points the nut holding the HT lead to the plug on one of our Seagulls vibrates loose and falls into the Lerryn and the engine stutters and stalls. My skipper spends much of the next couple of miles of the course hanging over the back of the boat attempting (unsuccessfully, as it turns out) a jury rig to get the engine going again. During these periods of engine first aid he hands me the long extension for the working engine. Trying to steer the boat with this from the front of the boat turns out, what with the very limited scope for movement it gives and the skipper being in the way, to be tricky, and the prospect of showing a boat coming towards us a clear and positive change of direction a la the Col Regs is beyond unlikely. On more than one occasion only a strangled cry from me and a resumption of the helm by Chris saves us from disqualification and a probable ducking due to collision.

Despite its venerable years, our other engine hangs together, however, and we finally make it to the finish after about an hour at full chat. We ground on the gravel and I run to the bell hanging further up the shore and ring it. We made it! (And it turns out didn’t get disqualified). A substantial crowd has accumulated and finding our near and dear takes a bit of time; there are lots of folk on the bank to greet, some of whom we haven’t seen since they were helming the stand-on vessel in a close encounter some time in September, so a fair hubbub compensates for the steady decline in Seagull engine noise. The first two boats to finish get to take part in a tug-of-war, an event which is as complete a shambles as anyone could wish for, and we retire to the pub for much deserved refreshments and prize giving. Given that there are almost as many prizes as un-disqualified finishers, we are unlucky not to win one, but my wife strikes so lucky in the raffle we give back one of the prizes and give another winning ticket to Jean, my skipper’s wife.

  Mike Baker


The day has raised £291 for local charities and £227 for the RNLI. And a good time was had by almost everybody.

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