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The return to Etchells and the podium

by John Curnow on 27 Jul 2011
The victorious Noel, Bill Merrington and Ben Morrison-Jack with their Victorian Etchells State Championship trophy. - Etchells World Championships Nick McGuigan
Noel 'Nitro' Drennan sure has sailed Etchells before and even placed in the top ten at a Worlds. However, he and crew of Will McCarthy and Anthony (Nocka) Nossiter went one better at the recent San Diego Etchells World Championships and made it to the podium with a terrific second place.

Amongst it all there's been a lot of big boat work, but the lure of the Etchells proved strong once more and he found himself preparing for another World Championships. 'Our regatta plan for San Diego came together whilst Will, Anthony and I were doing the lead up to and then competing in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, aboard the Elliott penned supermaxi, Loyal (nee Maximus). We had plenty of time to talk Etchells and how to build up to our goal of being on the start line of heat one, fully ready to race', said Nitro.

Early in January 2011, it was time to compete in the Rex Gorrell Prestige Australian National Etchells Championship. The result was an excellent fifth place, 'Which I was pretty happy with, seeing as it had been quite a while since I raced in the Etchells.' In fact it had been almost two years, March 2009 to be exact, since he'd been in the boat. That was the Worlds hosted out of Brighton and they'd walked away with a sixth place.


At any rate, a couple of weeks after the Nationals, Nitro, Will and Steve 'Mothy' Jarvin appeared in Newcastle for the Thrifty NSW State Championships. Nocka was not available as he was in China, but the crew still managed to get a seventh place. Like the Nationals and the Victorian State Championships, which were to follow, any of at least 10 crews could easily have been be the victor.

The Victorian State Championships were on over the long weekend of March 12 to 14, inclusive. In Michael Hiatt's second Etchells, Bad Doll, Noel with crew this time of Bill Merrington and Ben Morrison-Jack, got up for the win - by one point in the end. 'It was a pretty difficult regatta; the whole weekend has had lots of shifts and velocity changes. It definitely kept us on our toes. The two nautical mile works were more like what we're used to years ago and I still like the longer courses and the racing it provides. Absolutely a great leveller for any discrepancies at the other end', Noel said quayside immediately after that win. Looking back it all, Nitro commented that 'The regatta was light and shifty and a really good lead up for San Diego, as we had pretty good boat speed.'

Interestingly, Will McCarthy sailed with John Bertrand in that regatta and their super fast finishing in the last few races saw them land in second place. 'Nocka was still in China and it did not hurt Will sailing with JB, either', said Nitro.

With the three practice regattas under his belt and some pretty commendable results to go with it, Nitro reflected on the fact that they had some 'Pretty mediocre starting, on my behalf. Certainly, this was definitely an area for improvement, which we did more through discussion, rather than multiple practice starts. A general simplifying of the starting procedure and the aim of just getting a good start anywhere, as opposed to owning than box seat was adopted.'

Moving on to June and the San Diego Worlds, Noel secured a good local boat to use. 'This eliminated the need to ship my own boat and made it low stress to get out on the race course. We choose not to do the pre-Worlds, as it just added more time and money. Ultimately, we wanted to be fresh for the first race and knew we had to use our time beforehand, eight days in total, really well. It seemed a lot prior to arrival, but once there we did run out of time a bit. The upshot of it all is that it allowed us to be completely focused on speed, rather than racing.'

Michael 'Living Doll' Hiatt and Rob 'Shogun' Hanna, who are both from Melbourne, had been organised for Noel and crew to tune with in the week leading up to the Worlds. 'We felt comfortable at the end of the week with our upwind speed. Checking in with several of the better, local boats allowed us to see that it was pretty apparent that we were fast in the predominantly 8-11 knot breezes.'

Noel had been out on the very same course in the 2000 Etchells Worlds, when he was crewing for Dennis Conner. 'I thought I knew the local conditions, however it definitely seems to have changed slightly, to a more even course, rather than the right side bias that I remember.'

Armed with the knowledge that they had good upwind speed, they set about devising a strategy to make effective use of it. In the main, they started away from the bunch and focussed on being at speed with a reasonable start as their priority. 'Whilst racing up the first beat, primarily being in the middle or just towards the slightly favoured side (left or right), we seemed to spend a lot of time sailing against Bill Hardesty. He seemed to have a similar plan to us', Noel discovered. 'Overall, it probably would have been better for us to work a side of the course a bit harder, but it was very difficult to fully commit to one side. We were a little conservative, especially in the second half of the first beat.'

Like all the good crews, effective communication played a crucial role. 'We had no clear definition of our roles on the boat, so there was plenty of overlap with everything, which is good I think. If you had to place it however, overall, our race strategy was worked out between Nocka and I, whilst Will made sure we were travelling forward quickly enough. When Will chipped in on strategy, Nocka and I knew it was for a good reason and that we'd better factor in his thoughts.'

'Our drop race was our first race (21), which was not ideal, but we knew it was a long regatta and things have their way of evening out, especially in an 83 boat fleet, with large wind shifts. We had pretty strong races from Heat Two onwards and were never out of the top 10. Unfortunately and unlike Bill Hardesty, we could not convert it into heat wins, despite being in similar positions at the first mark', said Nitro of their results.

The last race was the trickiest race of the regatta with larger than previous wind shifts and big pressure variations across the course. 'Even though we had a four-point positive gap to Vince to retain our second place, overall, it was still a really tough race. We managed to stay ahead of Vince at every mark, albeit just and then put several boats between us at the finish, so it looked easy but it was definitely stressful!'

Interestingly, the first eight boats at San Diego and the last five winners of the World Championship used North Sails. Now, concurrently, and in very different conditions in the Southern Hemisphere, North's were taking the top three spots at Mooloolaba.

Noel works with Ross Lloyd at the Melbourne loft and said this of the impressive results, 'North's current win ratio has a lot to do with the sail makers from the various North lofts around the globe, all of whom are long-term Etchells sailors. In addition to us, in Australia we also have Michael Coxon, Mark Bradford and Vaughan Prentice. In the USA, there are Vince Brun, Chris Snow, Jeff Madrigali, Chad Hough and Ched Proctor, with Simon Fry in the UK. Whilst it may look a lot of people on paper, I think it's a good thing, as you get a broad view on how an Etchells sail should look and perform.'

Getting back to reflect on his personal achievements at the San Diego regatta, Noel said, 'We were happy with our second overall, well maybe not completely… Anyway, before we left Australia we all knew that it would be tough racing the local San Diego fleet, who would be very used to their local conditions. It would have been easy to pack it in and say it was a tough regatta, so we'll take the podium finish. The upcoming 2012 Worlds in Sydney will be a great regatta and hopefully, we'll end up with a strong overseas entry, just like San Diego did. They had 11 nations competing! I am looking forward to Sydney, as I think the Manly Circle will provide a variety of wind and sea conditions, rather than just the 8-11 knots we saw most days in San Diego.

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