Fire-balling Down Under

Fire-balling Down Under

Submitted and written by Richard Quinlan, March 2024

Liam and I are off to the Fireball Worlds! First is the long flight, Calgary-Vancouver-Brisbane-Melbourne, then there’ll be two days of jet-lag recovery hiking and birding on Mt Dandenong above the Melbourne skyline. Then we’ll visit my wife’s brother Charles & family near Ballarat. He’s been storing the 25-year-old Fireball I bought a year ago and will trailer Fireball 14545 ‘Invictus’ to Royal Geelong Yacht Club. We’ll sail the Australian Championships Feb 7-9 then Worlds Feb 11-16.

Sixty-six boats were registered but only 59 have converged on the start line. The unfortunate Brits and Czechs have their boats in two containers that got diverted and delayed by the Red Sea conflict. Miraculously, Australian organisers found replacement boats, for everybody, but some chose not to sail without their own boats. Half the fleet is race-ready Aussies in the middle of their regatta season. The rest hail from GBR, FRA, IRL, SUI, ITA, and CZE plus three CAN boats – Mark Cummings & Evelyn Chisholm of
Victoria, plus Kelly & Shannon Gallin skipping one regatta each with Eric Diller crewing. They’re also from Vancouver Island. My son (and crew) Liam sails from Jericho Sailing Centre in Vancouver, while I sail locally at St. Mary’s Sailing Club in Lethbridge, and at Calgary Yacht Club when droughts drain our local reservoir.

Liam and I haven’t been practicing together due to distance, and because of my missing much of the 2023 season thanks to a newly-diagnosed heart condition. And it’s the middle of the Canadian winter! At Stingaree Bay off Royal Geelong Yacht Club there’ll be strong offshore, shifty winds with little wave development. The Aussies call it an ‘offshore ocean breeze with flatwater’. I’m hoping my prairie shifty-sailing experience will help.

Fireball Worlds attracts strong sailors with decades of dedication to the unique class. The Fireball was designed in the 1960s and has a unique look that conveys a timeless coolness like the MGBs, XKEs, and Corvettes from that era. It is one-design but with parameters broad enough to allow creativity in rigging. Carefully-guided evolutionary changes have led to faster hulls, flat spinnakers for high reaches, trapezing, efficient rigging, mylar sails, and specific go-fast tuning that’s readily shared between veteran
and beginner Fireballers.

We’ll be sailing against the best! Liam and I have sailed in four previous Fireball Worlds, but were toward the back of the fleet. A mid-30s finish is our goal as we’re relatively inexperienced, unpracticed sailors in an unfamiliar older boat with a 69-year-old skipper. And that performance goal is secondary to staying healthy, having fun, improving our sailing and teamwork, and socializing with Aussie and international sailors.

Day 1 was a baptism by seawater! The wind whipped up to 20 knots by the first start. By the third race, gusts were knocking boats over on upwind legs. The gybe mark was a demolition derby! We held ourselves to just one capsize on a spinnaker gybe and, happily, Liam got the boat up quickly and scooped me into the cockpit. This first day of racing after so long away was exhilarating and tiring. The Fireball’s direct main-sheeting provides for super-quick adjustments sailing upwind. But in these gusty shifty winds,
you must play it constantly to avoid being blown over or left behind by the fleet. I’m sore and stiff in my arms and shoulders on this first evening! Our resurrected Fireball provided some surprizes – a self-destructing spinnaker halyard cleat, a broken tiller extension, a jib set too high making us unable to point as high as others upwind, and a slot gasket replacement. Ah, but we smile and make repairs to sail another day. Mark and Evelyn were also dealing with breakdowns on their colourful chartered boat
‘Smokin’ Gun’. We were often close to Shannon and Eric who are fast on spinnaker legs.

The Pre-World Australian Championships have given us 2 more days of challenging sailing in strong shifty winds. The winners are Dave Hall and Paul Constable of England. Top Australians came second – Ben Schultz of South Australia with the Australian 470 champion as crew. We placed 39th out of 52 boats. In a ‘special’ prize we won some nice Ronstan-sponsored swag to take home! The other two Canadian
boats placed 44th (Mark & Evelyn) and 48th (Shannon and Eric). I was doubting my old body coming into this, but am feeling strong and healthy, as is Liam. We’re keen to move on to the main event.

Whoa… that was a wild day! A north wind duking it out with the ocean breeze today caused really shifty conditions for the first day of Worlds. It was not to the race officers liking so he kept the fleet ashore – also to protect us from the 35° blazing heat. The Aussies were elbowing their way to the club bar by the time we finally got sent out – at 4:30pm! The Southern Ocean wind had won: big time… The race started in a 25-knot wind that got stronger. Multiple capsizes, breakages and torn sails forced many to shore. The Aussies are used to this, though, and it seemed to be just another day on the water for them! Top worlds teams trailed behind local sailors – an unusual scenario at a World Championship! We were flying around mid-fleet when we got knocked down by a sudden gust on the second spinnaker reach. It took us a while to get the boat back up, then we trailed the rest of the race finishing 46th. In the second race, we sailed
conservatively and survived at the gybe mark weaving between 4 spinnaker boats that capsized right in front and beside us. On our second upwind leg, we crossed tacks at high speed with now-familiar rivals, passing Irish friends on the downwind, but getting nipped by the French at the finish line, crossing 32nd. The sun set as tired fireball sailors clambered up the beach into the dinghy park at 8:30pm. We rounded up Team Ireland and brought them home for a delicious Tasmanian salmon dinner cooked by Dee.

Two races today with no delays! The first started with winds of 12 knots, but by the finish we were back pushing 18 knots. We stayed pointy side up all day but had trouble getting our settings right and felt unable to turn on our best speed. Results were at least consistent: 35th and 36th. The regatta has a fun social agenda. Each day features recognition of certain sailors, volunteers and sponsors. On this day, father/son teams got up on stage and we were with eight other family teams. Then at evening prize-giving they recognized teenagers in the event – the youngest being a 15-year old female Swiss helm. Today I exchanged club burgees in a ceremony with the friendly RGYC Vice-Commodore. Eric and Kelly had a capsize mishap that gave Eric a bad cut on his head. The on-water response team was excellent. He was transported to hospital where he was bandaged, stitched-up and released. He’ll hopefully be back on the water soon! We’ve been warned that racing tomorrow might be hindered by a series of electrical storms and super-strong winds, so we might be held ashore.

Yep, races were cancelled today due to severe weather. Liam and I spent the down time replacing a main halyard cleat that had been slipping, replacing a jib downhaul cleat, and calibrating and marking the Aussie-style jib fairleads that have been confounding us.

Back to the club again today on what was supposed to be the lay day. Instead we had two races to make up for yesterday’s cancellation. The wind blew 15-20 knots – enough to tip over several boats and cause problems. After 6 days of sailing, we’re getting better and responding quicker to gusts and shifts in these big winds. On one high reach, everyone got knocked by a header and couldn’t make the mark. So, we did our first ever ‘Aussie Drop’, then could point up enough to get to the gybe mark, hoist the kite the rest
of the way, and gybe, accelerating down to the leeward mark. We stayed upright all day and had some of our best speed. Today it finally showed in our results, with our first finishes in the 20s: a 29th then a 25th.

This is the last day of Fireball Worlds. We had our worst day yesterday with capsizes in both races, then had our best-ever day today in races 9 & 10. Getting 10 races in the series was significant because it allows dropping of your two worst races, and we had two poor results that we were happy to drop! Our starts were superb in races 9 &10 and we held our lane well and got to the windward mark with the front group. Staying with them is tough as every little error can allow several boats to pass. The winds were great at about 15 knots. Our close competitors, Frank and Ed from Ireland, Jean-Francois and son Alexis of France, and the Aussie husband & wife team of Suzanna and Andrew were near us all day, but we managed to inch ahead of them by the end of the day with 26th and 19th place finishes. It was exciting to finish a Worlds race in the top 20 for the first time.

Our final overall placing is 34th out of 57 boats. We achieved our pre-regatta performance goal! And more importantly, had a great holiday with my wife and two sons, and special time with other sailors.

The Aussies also use a system that does time comparisons of every boat against the race leader, with calibrations cumulative as each race occurs. It identifies the boat that has improved the most between the beginning and end of the regatta – and Liam and I won that fairly handily! It was a nice treat to get that unexpected recognition and the award at the final banquet.

After the excellent prize-giving meal, it was fun to chat with all the sailors as the event wound-down. As for our fellow Canadians: Kelly and Eric did get back onto the water after missing a few races, while Mark and Evelyn enjoyed the event, but from further back in the fleet than they’re used to.
Next Fireball Worlds Championship is at the famous sailing venue of Lake Garda, Italy, August 2025…. Hmm… Pasta anyone?

Richard Quinlan CAN 14545 ‘Invictus’