Reflections of a Topper Roady

Its Friday evening, Radio 2 Drive time requests are playing on the car radio, the Muppets theme has just played. School is behind us and a long road stretches ahead into the gathering night. The two, or occasionally three, of us are heading off for the weekend and a Topper National Series event. For 4 years my youngest daughter Elin sailed Toppers.

Topper Nationals Pwllhelli.

Elin started sailing at a very young age coming with us in dinghies, kayaks and Gordon’s Drascombe Lugger, then Daisy our Cornish Shrimper. Then aged 6 she started trying Optimists on our local Flash,  was initially scared, but liked the weekly sweet shop with sailing that is Gresford SC Juniors also meeting up with friends from other schools. But she grew to dislike the “Tea Chest” like Opie.   Excitement came back when the club got a pair of RS Fevas. Far more exciting than the Opie, with its see through racing sails and asymmetric spinnaker. First crewing with an older girl then grabbing the helm herself she loved the power.  With another girl they started travelling to other clubs on the RYA North Wales Club Youth Racing Circuit (CYRC).  The big event at the end of the North Wales Junior Circuit is the annual On Board Festival held at Bala SC. It is the selector event for Regional Squads. Five Gresford Juniors were selected for the RS Feva Squad. Through the course of that winter we hauled the kids and their dinghies to various venues around the Welsh coast and larger lakes. Pairings and roles were changed, teenage squabbles driving some pairings.  Elin was paired with a lad from Anglesey who’s parents bought him a new Feva, so he was helm.   Through the next season it became clear that the relationship was not working. Elin was being blamed for all the poor results and started losing her self-confidence. Training together was not fun. As his Dad put it “When it was good it was very very good, but when it was not it was horrid”.  To help her regain some confidence, Elin was lent a Topper at the Flash and loved it. Capsized it a lot, but still loved it. Entering the Wednesday Evening Pursuit Races with a scratch handicap she capsized five times in her first race, four times in her second and only once in her third race.

The Topper was originally designed in the late 1960s by the renown Ian Proctor as a plywood beach boat with a hull form which surfs very easily. Very soon afterwards it was re-developed as a large polypropylene injection moulded hull. The largest single moulding in polypropylene at the time. This provided a mass producible light-weight resilient hull that was exactly the same from the first moulding to the current mouldings 40 years later. A true racing “One Design”, winning is entirely down to the skill and luck of the helm. Minor developments have been moving from rear sheeted to centre sheeting, variations in the kicker and down haul and the halyard arrangement. Maintaining this robust dinghy to top level competition standard is not expensive with parts readily available (and easy to fit) to cover the occasional breakages and whims of teenagers (do red downhauls really make the boat go faster than black ones?).  The original 5.3m2 rig remains the standard, a smaller 4,2m rig allowed younger and lighter children to join the fun. The latest development is a larger 6.4m2 rig introduced in 2020 after 2 years testing by the RYA National Squads. The class is widely supported from club level through to RYA regional and international squads, a network of coaches and a very active Class Association (ITCA). In the UK along with the Optimist it is the Junior single handed feeder boat into the RYA Youth and Olympic squads. RYA and Team GB’s Olympic success has encouraged other countries, especially China, to follow a similar pathway programme for their own Olympic Squads. I had sailed an early Topper in the 1970s and loved it. But having just built a Mirror Dinghy, Dad was not for letting me have one. It would also have involved buying a wet suit, almost unheard of for fast growing sailing children at the time.

Enter “Ruthless”. Searching Apollo Duck, we found and bought a reasonably well equipped second hand “Squad ready” Topper with a range of 4.2m and 5.2m sails, a good trolley and a weathered cover for £850.  Her name “Ruthless” giving hints to the literary influences of her Lake District based previous owners. In her first race in “Ruthless” Elin stayed upright for the whole race and moved up from the back of the field. “This is my lucky boat, I love it” was Elin’s verdict to her still slightly sceptical mum. Within a few weeks Elin was starting to win the Wednesday Evening pursuit races and was having her handicap increased to keep her wins in check. My role, as parent of the person most likely to need it, was in the Rescue Boat.

While persevering crewing the Feva Elin quietly gained skill and confidence in the Topper. Her squad coach Dave Eccles ran a weeklong summer camp at Bala each summer. So as her Feva helm was elsewhere, Elin took her Topper along. Racing against other similar children found she was quite successful, contrary to what her Feva Helm kept telling her.  The crunch came at the On-Board festival. There was a decision to be made.  Move up to Welsh National Squad in the Feva or Regional Squad in the Topper. Elin chose Topper Regional Squad explaining that her Feva Helm needed somebody closer to him to train with.

As a Junior Squad Parent you have many roles:-

  • Logistics manager,
  • Chief Financier,
  • Kit Manager/ bosun,
  • First Responder (both medical and mental well-being),
  • Behavioural “Responsible Person”, 
  • Accommodation & Catering Manager (AKA warm roof over the head, cook, bottle washer and filler, clothes picker upper and laundry operative).

This, at a time when the natural progression of all teenagers is to see their parents diminish from being Heroine / Hero to “ZERO”. The ultimate accolade a parent can hope for is to be “AN EMBARASSMENT”. So ideally not seen or heard, preferably not even in the same universe. Unless needed, at which point instant presence is expected and demanded. Also to take the blame for everything in the teenager’s world that is “WRONG”. Fortunately by this time the teenagers are also starting to become more independent so can, with a bit of encouragement, be left to sort themselves out. Though binoculars can be handy for the nervous parent’s piece of mind, they should also be used very discreetly. Competitive parents do exist in all sports; though in my experience of Topper Parents most generally manage to keep a lid on their vicarious competitive nature, in public at least. Topper’s reputation as “the Friendly Class” is largely deserved.

Logistics Manager: Regional Squad would involve a round of winter residential training camps and committing to competing in a round of ITCA National Series competition cross the UK culminating in the GB Topper Nationals in Pwlhelli.   This adds up to about 4-5000 miles of travel to various local, regional and national events each year with 20 or so nights away. The mileage and nights away increase as the competitor raises through the ranks. So how to meet the logistic challenge. The Topper is car topable. But with a dodgy back and a relatively small car along with all the other kit clothing, not my preferred option. This was confirmed when we dropped a Topper onto the bonnet of my car putting a couple of scratches in it.    

We started out with an old Mirror Dinghy Trailer which I gradually modified to carry the Topper inverted (so as not to distort the hull) then added a box to carry “foils” (rudder and dagger board) and various other bits of kit.  We then added a pair of “rig tubes” to carry the spars and rolled up sails. These I made from a sawn up length of plastic piping from our local builder’s merchants, though commercial equivalents are available. This rather Heath Robinson contrivance served us well that first season, being low profile it was just out of sight of the rear view mirror until I fitted the box. But it failed spectacularly within a couple of miles of home on our first trip to Weymouth. A suspension arm fatigued and fell off in a cloud of hot rubber and grinding metal. Dragging the remains to the side of the road we arranged to borrow a friend’s large camping trailer, transferred boat and kit and were back on the road less than an hour behind schedule. 5 hours later we rolled into Weymouth’s Premier Inn and what was left of a night’s sleep. 

Our next trailer was an Ifor Williams box trailer to which I fitted a Unistrut frame to carry the boat and rig tubes leaving the box for kit. 10,000 miles, later it is still almost as good as new, easy to tow behind our cars and with a resale value about what we paid for it.

Chief Financier: Sailing has an unfortunate reputation of being only for the rich.  Yes like any passion it can use up a lot of money if you want it to, but it does not have to. After the initial outlay on the boat and trailer, the biggest costs were travel and accommodation, then sailing clothes. A serious campaign of 5 or 6 National Series event weekends and a week-long National Championship cost little more than the equivalent “staycations”. We got to keep meeting a great bunch of like-minded people and established a nationwide network of friends. In winter we used Premier Inns booked well in advance to get the best deals, then shared holiday cottages for Nationals. Sometimes we camped, others had motor homes.

Good comfortable warm clothing is essential to the enjoyment. Training in the snowy midlands in February needs good kit. Yes there are the brand loyalties and pressures, but bad kit is very quickly seen through and bad reviews gets around the teenagers very quickly. Colour preferences are individual. One of Elin’s friends always races in his trademark yellow. Some were pretty in pink, at least until puberty hit. Most went for uniform black with the occasional accents of red and blue.  Woolly hats and bandanas were part of the individual’s character.

Winter Training

Keeping the boat maintained and dealing with minor breakages was part of the fun. It helped to be handy with a drill and pop rivet gun to replace and upgrade parts of the rig. We quickly developed a small tool kit which Elin took great pride in. Even now she carries rolls of electrical tape in her school bag. Russ Dent, Topper’s production manager attended all the National Series events with a van load of spare parts and ran a workshop for running repairs and aiding less technically confident parents. Sorting out the leak in Ruthless’s hull with a soldering iron helped saved Elin’s first National championships. Thanks again Russ.

Serious injuries are rare, occasional cuts and bruises, occasionally some muscle strain from trying too hard without warming up, most often cold bordering on hypothermia during winter training or when “The Beast from The East” hit the winter nationals at Weymouth. Coaches and safety crews are alert for this. Two capsizes and you are ashore was the rule for that event.

Teenage children are a law unto themselves as they break free from parental control and start to experiment with their growing freedoms. Hormones also kick in and must be learned to be managed as friendships evolve and change. 

Racing is a disciplined sport with rules strictly applied, however pushing the boundaries to the limits and beyond is how many learn to excel. Overall the Topper sailors were a reasonably self-regulating group with minimal need for parental intervention. Self-discipline could and did break down as particularly the younger sailors became dehydrated, tired and “hangry”. Savvy parents quickly learned the benefits of some hot quick calories and fluids, then the need to give space.

Having this wider circle of friends gave Elin a lot of support and balance when she was having problems with some other children in the narrow world of school. Social media contact with the Topper friends was a far greater benefit than threat.  Within the Topper family friendships formed, some did not last but all learned how to evaluate and enjoy those friendships which did.    

Friends enjoying a break between races Poole

 At the end of a long day on the water either training or racing the boat had to be brought ashore, put to bed (or at the end of the weekend onto the trailer) and the tired helm showered, changed and taken to the venue for the night. Early snack food and drink was essential to get past the hangry phase. Through the winter we tended to stay in Premier Inns. Identikit we knew what we were getting without having to think too hard. Sustaining food was on hand early and with little trouble. There were always other families staying in the same venue, so socialising continued until the call of a warm bed took over. In the summer we were more likely to stay on site where herds of teenagers would roam around socialising.  A particularly memorable venue was the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club in Lowestoft where we stayed in the garret at the top of the club’s Edwardian dome. 360-degree views from our room in a very old-world setting. The promenade created a great venue for the teenagers to hang out in the evenings while parents enjoyed the dining room and bar. Group hiring holiday cottages for the weeklong nationals also worked well.

It isn’t all about the kids. Some parents enjoyed sitting in the club house drinking tea and chatting, others finding a quiet corner with a laptop to catch up on work or social media. My preference was to help where I could while trying (usually unsuccessfully) not to cramp Elin’s developing style.

My first role was running the Tally Board to keep track of which children were ashore or on the water. A vital part of the safety organisation which required a flurry of activity as boats were launched and recovered. 

For the next event, because I had a VHF licence, I was asked to run the Bridge. This provides the communications link between the Event Director and shore-based teams, with the Race officers, Mark layers and Safety teams on the water. Usually this is busy as the race management and safety boats go on the water and check out, then again as they check in at the end of the day with occasional bits of traffic as competitors are brought ashore. But a sudden and severe change in the weather at Bala one year moved what was fairly routine into a major rescue and recovery exercise. As Bridge officer part of my role was to keep the logs of all radio traffic and help direct efforts where they were needed.  That all the competitors were brought ashore and accounted for within 10 minutes and the whole fleet including many abandoned boats was safely recovered ashore within half an hour called for a great deal of coordination across the whole race management team.  

After a few events running the Bridge I wanted to try something on the water so joined the Safety fleet. I already had a Power Boat 2 qualification with a Safety Boat endorsement from my work as a Dinghy Instructor. Generally, this ment long days on the water following the fleets around a designated portion of the race course or escorting boats to and from the beach, occasionally providing assistance where necessary. To comply with Safeguarding all coaches, safety boats and other race official’s boats need to have a crew of at least two. Often a parent filling at least one of the crew roles. Between races the safety fleet is kept busy herding competitors into a reasonably small area and keeping an eye out for stragglers. One particularly memorable trip was again at Lowestoft where I got to crew and have a go at driving an ex RNLI Atlantic 21.

At the Pwllheli Nationals we got to try different roles, so in addition to Safety Boat I crewed for the on the water jury one day and helped on the committee boat another.  Over the course of the next season I rotated these various roles.

The big step-up came towards the end of the UK National Series season where I was invited to train as a Mark Layer for the world championships in China. The ITCA Mark Layers are a very close-knit team of long-established partnerships. A daunting prospect to be invited to join this elite team, many of whom are on the RYA and World Sailing lists of certified Mark Layers and some were part of the team of 2012 Olympic race officials. I was initially sent a load of training material from the official RYA course to start getting my head around the role. My training came during the Weymouth Nationals week where I joined Andy Millington for my first day’s training.

The role is to lay a series of race marks to a precise pentagonal arrangement dictated by wind direction, strength and the Race Officer’s desired race duration.  In tidal waters there are various adjustments to account for tidal set, drift and the relative strength of wind. Mark laying accuracy is to within a very few meters on a course which can be up to a kilometre long and wide in whatever sea and tidal conditions prevail.  The mark positions are roughly set out from prescribed tables using GPS, then more precisely positioned using compass bearings and laser range finders all orientated from the first mark, laid near the committee boat. Handling the anchors, warps and buoys is wet and physical work and requires a lot of organisation to avoid warps tangling, getting wrapped around the boat’s propeller or dropping an anchor without it being properly tethered.  Laying the marks to allow for tide and wind moves the game from the precise science of navigation to an art. Then comes the mystique. At the bottom gate mark, will the boats split evenly showing no bias in the set of the course?  Will the first boat finish exactly on the time dictated by the Race Officer? Then come the traditions, a Mars Bar after the first set.  Drinks on the Race Officer if an even split of the boats around the bottom gate.   

The Mark Layer’s toy box full of kit develops quickly: VHF radio, Iris sighting compass, wind vane (sometimes attached to a hand bearing compass), laminated sets of course cards and dimension tables, clip board with protractor to recalculate course angles quickly and reducing the amount of mental arithmetic, Garmin 72 GPS, tide gauge sticks, wind speed gauge, optical or laser range finder, waterproof case. Then the bigger bits of kit; fog horn or other sound making equipment, heavy duty snap shackles for attaching marker buoys to the RIB, Jersey rings and buoys to lift the marks from deep water, Signal flags, course shortening boards (folding).   The favoured boat for Mark Layer’s is a RIB with a 50-90HP outboard. The second seat is sometimes sacrificed to make more room in the back of the boat for anchors and warps. A towing post behind the seats is an advantage as is a stainless steel frame over the engines to which marks can be attached high out of the water for towing. A good bilge pump is essential.

The Mark Layer’s day starts early with safety and race committee meetings, then off to the boat to rig up for the day. Marks, warps anchors and dumbbell weights are usually loaded up and the fully fuelled RIBs launched the night before an event. Food and kit for the day stowed and the toy’s deployed. Each lead Mark Layer has his or her own preference for pimping up their RIB and stowing their kit. The Crew fitting in around the lead. The Lead Mark Layer’s role is to get the RIB into the best position to lay the marks accurately and adjust accordingly. A very high level of both RIB navigation and handling skills is essential.  The crew’s role is mainly to manage the marks, warps anchors and dumbbell weights. Fast accurate knot tying is an essential skill. Upper body strength is desirable.  The Crew also assists with the finer navigation work taking cross bearings and sometimes gets to use the range finder.

Signing out with the bridge the Mark Layers usually follow the main committee boat onto the course area. Top level race officials do this with some style with the four Mark Layers RIBs following in strict vee formation behind the Committee Boat as they leave the marina and head out to the course area.

Once the committee boat is anchored and the Race Officer happy the first gate is set out from the committee boat. This is the fixed point around which the remainder of the course is aligned.  Mark 1 the windward mark goes in next. This has its own dedicated marks boat “Marks 1” as it will be the mark moved most frequently as wind shifts come through. Mark 2 and Mark 3 (a gate mark) can then be laid and referenced back to the gate mark, each again with their own dedicated Marks Boat. “Marks 4” looks after the start and finish marks and with the help of “Marks 3” manage the outer end of the start line and any general recalls. The Marks boats can also be used for signalling to the race fleet shortened course or other course alterations and monitoring boats as they round (or miss) the various marks.

Wind shifts mean the course needs to be realigned. Sometimes by dragging a mark and its anchor to a new position but more often lifting the whole kit and caboodle, including the pair of dumbbell counter weights which keep the marks upright and the warps below keel level. Flaking the anchor rode as it is lifted then relaying in the new location.   The mark is then left to settle to wind and tide then checked for positional accuracy. Maybe adjusted slightly or re-laid again if it is dragging. A good day is when the course only needs minor adjustment. A bad day when the course must be lifted and relayed 6,7 or 8 times. A particularly bad day is when the committee boat must move several times during the day and the whole course area moves with it. Respite came as the race progressed, time for a quick snack or hot drink, watching for our helms and other competitors we knew. Between races the course resetting, adjustments and realignments then back on station for the start.

As the last boats finished the last race of the day the Marks team collected in all the race marks coiled down, secured the marks to the back of the RIB, cleaned up and headed for the marina to refuel the boat and head back to the berth, hot showers, dinner and a drink in the bar……. Well not quite. There was also the helm to catch up with, feed, console or avoid as necessary, possibly boat and equipment repairs along with social and accommodation secretary duties to attend to. A few hours in a warm bed then do it all again the next day.   

 Four years of great fun and an unrepeatable time with my daughter at a formative stage of her life.

Competing in the World Championships in China 2018

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