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A look back at the International Canoe World Championships

by David Henshall 29 Aug 2017 09:35 PDT 19-25 August 2017

Mae calon hwylio Cymru'n cynhyrchu Hyrwyddwr byd-eang Cymreig.
(The heart of Welsh sailing produces a truly Welsh World Champion)

With a nicely organised final medal ceremony and prize giving, which took place alongside a very tasty Championships dinner, the curtain finally came down on the International Canoe World Championships at Pwllheli Sailing Club. The successful conclusion of the event highlights the opportunites that are now there for the Canoes to grasp (should they wish to), yet at the same time, a number of fairly fundamental questions the class need to be asking itself.

Firstly, to the event itself. The very specific requirements of the International Canoe fleet mean that many of the normal criteria for hosting an event need more careful consideration. Because of the nature of canoe sailing, there is a very specific upper limit on wind strength of 10 metres per sec (that's 19.2 knots in pre-decimal wind strength) but to this, the sea state must also be taken into account.

Big waves seem fine but a very short, sharp chop can make tacking into a slow, to be avoided if possible, activity. These two alone make venue selection tricky; the Canoes are heading down to Australia for their next event, but Perth in WA, a location so good it comes into the bucket list category, would probably be too breezy if the prevailing Fremantle Doctor winds arrive on schedule. The same way of thinking impacts on the fleet should they want mainland Europe, for the equally desirable choice of Garda would be equally problematic. Having watched them for a week, the Canoes would make a dramatic picture on the Lake but I just don't see them short tacking up under the cliffs.

Another consideration for the Canoes comes with the fact that they don't do back to back races. Two races a day are the order, with a break ashore between them. For anywhere with more than a 15-20 minute sail to the race course, this would make the downtime between races so long as to be impractical. This situation is not eased by the stipulation in the rules that the course size is set with a leg length of 1.1nm and that races should be finished at the top of a beat.

If the prevailing conditions are for an on-shore breeze, this further exacerbates that time issue that can develop at the end of the first race, until the fleet can come back afloat and reassemble for the next one.

For the International Canoe fleet, Pwllheli was able to tick all of these boxes. It was a nominal 15 minute sail to the start line and apart from the day of very light airs, most boats could be back on the beach within 30 minutes of crossing the finish line. However, one of the strongest facets of the International Canoe story can make make this problem even trickier. It is to their credit that the canoes have gone for an approach that can only be described as fully inclusive, so that in addition to the main fleet, there were Asymmetric Canoes, an encouraging number of Swedish designed Slurps, the Nethercot One-Designs, Classics and the German Taifuns.

There are some very good lessons for the other development classes to pick up on here, because everyone seemed happy to be in one (or two starts) yet to be all sailing together. That said, this happy family approach would cause issues for the race team simply down to the great variations in performance. Even on the first lap, it was not uncommon to have boats on all three legs of the course.

As to the boats/canoes themselves, here too there are lessons for some of the other development classes. To their credit, the International Canoes tried going one-design, then on finding that this wasn't really working, were big enough and strong enough to recognise the fact and remove the cap on development. Now, under the heading of what are now called new rules and with a minimum weight brought down to 50kgs, technical innovation is rampant and exploring a number of different directions at once.

Currently all this effort seems aimed at getting the hull shape right, with much of the intellectual exercise taking place in the first third of the boat. It has to be one of the stories to watch, that the new Champion has purchased the 2nd placed American boat, changing his current Morrison design for the latest in thinking from Chris Maas.

Having spent the last week closely observing the leading boats across a wide range of conditions, this might be an inspired move, as Robin Wood was already one of those experimenting with a T-foil rudder. The hull form of the Maas BB is at the current edge of extreme in being minimalist in the first third of the hull and it was noticeable that offwind, there was often a rooster tail of spray coming up off the forestay fitting on the top of the deck. In contrast, the earlier Maas designs, but particularly the Warren Dragonflys, seemed to have both more buoyancy forwards and were getting more dynamic lift from the hull.

I could tell from a hundred metres or more away from the line of sailing who was were, simply by looking at the angle of attack that the hulls were taking. I picked up on a number of grumbles in the dinghy park that the latest Morrison design wasn't performing as well had been expected, yet I saw clear evidence of genuine boat speed from the Morrison that was in a different league to the boats nearby.

This may well be a supportive theory for the observation, that the current thinking on the canoe rig is lagging behind that of hull development. An example of this had to be Gareth Caldwell, who in terms of raw boat speed had to be one of the quickest boats on the water once the sea state started to roughen up.

Chris Maas, who was expected to be the quickest in these conditions, was sailing with what had to be the flattest suit of sails seen out on the bay. In the smoother waters, he was quick enough upwind, but had blistering speed offwind. Caldwell had a definite advantage in the lumpier stuff until the point when, thinking it was going to be windier than it actually was, he too flattened his sails off to the max only to suddenly find that he'd lost that boat speed edge. There's a lesson there somewhere...

Caldwell was one of a number of boats that have changed out to HD sails and clearly a great deal of thought has gone into these, for they looked to be setting well across the wide range of conditions. The Goachers also looked well cut for the rigs 'as they are currently set up', for the over-riding thought after watching the fleet sailing was the wonderful opportunities that exist there. Rather than thinking of the hull and rig as two separate entities, the real winner will be whoever cracks the conundrum of building a package of hull and rig that work together. A narrow, wave piercing hull with more power in the rig, or a more buoyant, easily driven hull with flatter sails, a mix of the two or something completely different, this is a fleet that is wide open to new thinking and new sailors.

Where will those new sailors come from though? The German fleet was clearly different to the rest in terms of not only the age profile, but in the way at the boats is being sailed by both the sexes. Together they came across as a strong unit and with youth on their side, could easily be a powerhouse for the class in the years to come. The demographics ought to be a worry for the class in the UK as the somewhat 'left field' image of the class, a hangover from the ages gone by, might be holding back the undoubted potential of new growth here too. With discussions already taking place about a CNC kit of parts to make an cost accessible yet competitive new rules hull, there is everything to suggest that the New Rules IC is a viable alternative for the thinking sailor, who is looking for something different, a boat that can deliver so much in the way of satisfaction.

Certainly the New Rules boats have to be the way for the class to develop and grow, for although dramatically eye-catching when blasting off downwind under spinnaker, the ACs, the Asymmetric Canoes, with UK boats only and only a handful at that, looked an anachronistic throwback to the days when we were being told that the skiff inspired asymmetric was the future. This is not meant in a derogatory sense, for the AC fleet at Pwllheli were well sailed and provided an interesting sub-plot to the main event. Yet the fact remains that this was no more than a supporting act for a much bigger, brighter and exciting main fleet. Given the UK centric nature of the ACs, one has to question if they will depart en masse for Australia in 2020 and after that, with all the innovation taking place in the new rules ICs, it is hard to see the long term future that exists for these boats.

Before finishing, any retrospective ought also to look quizzically at the host venue. For the UK domestic scene, Pwllheli can sometimes be considered something of a marmite venue, you either love it or hate it. Many of the negatives refer to the period before the building of the Plas Heli complex, amongst the more recent sideswipes are a number that are simply fuelled by a preference for a more picturesque location in the North West. It is hard for Plas Heli to counter objections made by an elite who think that the only places to sail are in the chic locations (which means some of the more over blown spots in the South West) and comaparable pretty towns elsewhere, for there is no way to argue against such simplistic prejudice. Plas Heli certainly has its faults (the shortage of sit down loos really ought to have been addressed by now) but if the planned tie in with a nearby town, where there is an abundance of well priced accommodation comes to fruition, then Pwllheli will be even more attractive. Certainly, as a destination for the family, the stretch of coastline from Porthmadog around to Pwllheli takes some beating. For the sailors, the top class race management, good rescue cover and superb sailing water tick all of the boxes; add in that 20 minute sail to the start and it is hard to beat. Overall, the impression I got was that the Pwllheli Worlds were that happy result, where in the end, the Championships were greater than the sum of the parts. The Plas Heli staff were warm, welcoming and helpful and though at times they were both stretched and thin on the ground, some of the issues they were struggling with were not of their making. Whilst Plas Heli could and must do better, the relaxed, informal "it will be alright on the night" organisation of the class added some extra complications to the behind the scenes organisation.

Having looked at the various innovations in hull design and rig development, there is a bigger issue for the International Canoes to consider. They are an iconic class, with a rich heritage steeped in the past. This though will not guarantee them a future. An aging elite looking backwards will not attract the new boats, the new ideas and most importantly of all, the new blood to replace the old, unless they can work out who and what they will be going forward. Again, as the independent observer it seems that there are two paths that could be taken: A shrinking sub-group of sailing, with their own rules and ways of doing things, or an exciting, mainstream fleet racing under the World Sailing umbrella and in particular, adhering to their rules. This International aspect cannot be ignored, for the Canoe remains a truly International class. The Swedes might be resting at present but Germany is an ever increasing powerhouse that is attracting both youth and ladies into the fleet.As with so many other classes, the Australians are hampered by the huge geographic spread of their fleet, as to a certain extent are the Americans, though they have the advantage of a rich vein of both innovators and powerful personalities.

Here at, we can but wish the International Canoes well as we look forward to whatever shape they wish to make the future. We share that earnest hope that the class makes the most of the opportunities that the Pwllheli World Championships have created, for should that be the case, then there will be plenty for us to report on in the futre.

Hwyl fawr a diolch i chi - Goodbye and thank you

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