A first-hand account of the first race in The Wooden Boatshop series at SSCBC
By Emma Phillips. Photo above: Susie Lachal
Sailing with my aunt on Mercury is always a pleasurable experience. Liz ensures the esky is well stocked, and a Tim Tam never out of reach. Since the late 80s Liz has sailed Mercury each season at SSCBC, she knows and loves the boat as an extension of her family. Mercury is simply rigged and beautifully set-up. Stepping aboard as a skipper never feels difficult.
Our plan for the stern chaser was simple. Being 19′ we would be starting in the first group of Division Two boats. We sat on the line in the lull of the changing tide and headed downwind toward the Bombora sandbank off Sorrento Pier. We weren’t concerned about hitting the bottom, since Mercury draws a small draft, but were cognisant the tide was low at this stage of the day.
Star, the little Lacco boat and our competitor, seemed fast downwind. We sat comfortably on her hip, with Pike to leeward and astern of us, and Mum to our windward side. Off Point King the wind tends to bend and shift, scattering onto the water and becoming a little confused. At different stages we were reaching and running. Once onto Shelley Beach, we settled into a run and set the pole onto the headsail.
In our contingent we were the first to set the pole. We sunk lower below Star, accelerating and deepening our position into a modest lead. Chinamen’s Hat appeared as a pale little triangle on the horizon, hovering above Swan Island near Queenscliff. The land behind us slipped slowly away, as the sails of the Couta Boat fleet appeared majestically on the horizon, floating like full clouds chasing us to our destination.
We were first around the mark and the rough plan was to spend as much time upwind near the shipping channel as possible. When I swim off the club, I am often astounded at how the tide shifts and accelerates in small changes of water depth. We knew little Mercury would need every advantage possible against the bigger boats in the fleet. We took a persistent shift on the first long knock and headed toward the channel.
Two ships were on the horizon, and little Mercury was doing well in the building breeze. We passed astern of the first ship, but the second – a big red car carrier – looked as though it may pose a problem. We needed to pass in front of the ship lest we reach off to pass behind it and compromise our lead. With Race Officer Peter Osbourne directing the Couta Boat traffic through the channel, we sought permission to put a tack in and cross the channel in front of the ship.
Thankfully Peter obliged, and we were thrilled to pass in front of the enormous red car carrier. Our strategy was proving favourable, and little Mercury pulled away from the boats trailing behind.
At the southern edge of the channel, we put another tack in, and lifted persistently as we crossed from Portsea to Sorrento. Drawing nearer to the Bombora we were struck with a choice. Tack up the Sorrento channel in deeper water and reach toward the finish – sailing a longer distance. Or take our chances in the shallow water. Our plate was down now, so we would need more depth than our previous passage.
Looking ahead, I could see the water lapping as it does on the blue turquoise sand bank. We were going to continue over the Bombora and take our chances. Liz was ready on the centreboard, and we lifted it a quarter as we passed over the shallowest area, slipping sideways but continuing to lift persistently toward the club.
As the sun beat down and we were in the last moments of the race, we were simply amazed at our lead over the fleet. We took a moment to allow ourselves the chance to think we may be first over the line – an amazing feat for this small boat. Strategically we had sailed well, ensuring Mercury was well placed on our competitors, but also utilising the tide and persistent shifts to our advantage. We took little knocks when they came but mostly headed in favourable directions. I have found in a southerly the Sisters can often lift on the right, so we placed the little boat to best obtain this advantage as well.
As we crossed the line Liz yelled out in glee, and we gave one another a high-five. It was a beautiful afternoon on the water, with the weight of the land dropping away as it slowly grew smaller in our sights. As we packed up the boat on the mooring, we revelled in the chance to be ferried ashore by a waiting VSR – a rare privilege on a little boat like Mercury that often finishes toward the back end of the fleet.
Thanks so much to our crew Jamie, who did a wonderful job on the jib. And thank you to Peter Osbourne and The Wooden Boatshop for a fantastic start to the season. We loved the opportunity to sail further afield and look forward to an exciting season of Couta Boat sailing at SSCBC.