The change in the Etchells class is noticeable. Younger skippers and crew are joining the older sailors in the hunt to qualify for the Etchells Worlds in Sydney in February 2012.
Dubbed by sailors in the past as the ‘old man’s class’, it is no longer an accepted description of the Etchells. The younger sailors have sniffed out what the older Etchells sailors have known for quite a while - high calibre, challenging racing, strict one-design and a welcoming crowd of professional and weekend sailors.
Australian class president, Jake Gunther, said one of the key attractions for the younger sailors now coming into the class is that the Etchells racing is very tactically based. 'The boats are tacking through 70 or 65 degrees. A five degree shift is going to represent a fair per cent of that wind angle. The boats therefore are very responsive to shifts in breezes and the gains are much greater as the breeze shifts. Consequently the boats are very tactical. With us not doing reaches anymore, just windward/leewards there is a whole other tactical thinking that goes into downwind as well. The boats are always close, always within seconds of each other and good tactics are well rewarded in this class.'
'With this kind of racing there is a solid base of 20, 30 and 40 year olds starting to emerge within the fleet as really significant players. There is still a population of older boys in the fleet and they are there because the boats are so good and they are not going to go find that level of racing somewhere else. There are a lot of people have been in Etchells for 20 or 30 years – that in itself is a testament to the quality of the class.'
Some examples of the youth racing in the class are Matthew Chew (28yo, helm), Tom Slingsby (27yo, crew), Josh Torpy (19yo, crew), Ben Davis (21yo, crew), Jamie Woods (22yo, helm) and current world champion, 36-year-old Bill Hardesty.
The opportunity to compete in the Sydney Etchells World Championship, one of the events in host club Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron’s 150th year celebrations, is appealing. The class numbers during the lead-up to the Worlds have strengthened making the qualification racing in several of the fleets almost as tough as what is expected for the worlds. Then there is the element of competing in a World Championship on a level playing field against some exceptional international talent including Hardesty, Vince Brun, Noel Drennan, Ante Razmilovic, John Bertrand and Jud Smith.
Youth world championship 2001 class representative Matthew Chew joined the Brisbane Etchells Fleet in 2005 taking the helm of Daniel Belcher’s boat for the nationals and mid-winters. When that boat was sold Chew moved onto Jason Muir’s boat as crew to win the 2008 nationals and then a third at the mid-winters before taking out the big prize in 2009, the Etchells World Championship.
Chew it seems has had an interest in what he enthusiastically describes as his 'perfect fit' class since his early sailing days. 'I have always been drawn to one-design sailing as it attracts the best sailors in the world. I remember particularly Dennis Conner when I was a young kid. I think I had a picture on my wall of him sailing an Etchells, that was when I was sailing Sabots.'
Back on the water after a break, Chew has settled into the Etchells class again, recently buying his own boat and now campaigning it towards the Worlds qualification. Chew is on the younger side of the fleet members, particularly when it comes to owning one, but that has not made a great deal of difference to his enjoyment either on or off the water. 'The old fellows are very good, very supportive. They enjoy having another boat to race. They share their knowledge with me and I share mine with them.'
The Queensland State Championship this weekend is his first big World Championship campaign event before he moves down south to compete in the NSW State Championship followed by plenty of offshore weekend training.
Another self-confessed weekend warrior, but with quite a different approach to his Etchells sailing is Lake Macquarie’s Jamie Woods. He has come from a match and skiff racing background and still likes to dabble in different classes in between his Etchells competition.
In June this year Woods reluctantly joined his dad, Tom Woods, as crew for the younger Woods’ first big Etchells regatta, the Mooloolaba winters. 'I was up there to fill in and then I decided I would sail the class for the rest of the season. So I made a deal with dad and said I don’t want to crew, I want to steer. He agreed, so I am steering for the rest of the season which is good.
'I was pretty good at it (helming) I thought back in my junior days and then I got too big so I crewed for about four years on 29ers and 49ers, but then I wanted to get back into steering.'
He jokingly said he doesn’t even like racing the Etchells, but in the next breath he is firm in his statement that the class attracts him because of the great racing and its tactical side. 'It is really close racing. I have stepped into it and I am finding it really hard to be competitive. I have gone through my whole life being up the front of the fleet and now I am cruising around the middle. It’s really hard.'
Woods just isn’t sure how he is going to fair trying to qualify for the Sydney worlds as he is also preparing to compete in the 49er class worlds in Perth. 'At the moment my outlook on it is, it depends is how lucky you are on the day. Everyone is a good sailor, it just depends on how much things go the right way for you at the time. So just try hard to make everything go the right for you.'
The Etchells World Championship 2012 will be conducted by Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron in conjunction with the Sydney Etchells Fleet from February 16th to 25th.
Event website http://www.etchellsworlds2012.org/worlds/