72 Years of Sailing

The beginning of the Inter-Club Regatta goes away back to the immediate post-war era, when the event was organised as a celebration of the new peace by encouraging boats from all over Shetland to come together for competitive sport. At that time sailing was Shetland’s main summer sport with many regattas attracting hundreds of spectators to watch the sport on the sea and to enjoy the variety of side entertainments too. The Inter-Club grew over the years and peaked in the 1970’s and early 1980’s when spectacular races with over 50 boats were a regular occurrence. Since then the interest in sailing in Shetland has fallen back considerably but the Inter-Club is still sailed in a very competitive spirit and to a very high standard by the very keen racing enthusiasts in Shetland. 

An illustration of early Inter-Club competition. The second team race on 3rd September 1953 featured many of the regular competitors of the age - Zephyr, White Falcon, Laughing Water, Flying Cloud, Fivla and Milky Way are prominent.

Shetland Racing Boats and the Regattas

The roots of competitive sailing in Shetland can be traced back to the Nineteenth Century. There had probably been informal racing between the open fishing boats for centuries before more formal competitions were set up by keener and probably wealthier sportsmen. Published in 1954, Charles Sandison's excellent book "The Sixareen and her  racing descendants" illustrates the beginning of sail racing in the nineteenth century. He writes" The fishermen of Shetland have always raced. "Kemping" they called it in the North Isles and still do. Writing in 1809 Edmonston speaks of the rather unnecessary practice of boats from one station starting all together and racing the whole way to the fishing grounds. Old sixareen men have told me the same thing, boat racing against boat for four hours at a stretch. And so when racing started towards the end of last century the fishermen took to the sport like ducks to water".They began to compete using the working boats of the day and the better off merchants and landowners indulged in sport using small purpose built yachts. The first Regattas were organised and eventually a class of Shetland racing boats began to emerge. Some of these boats were adapted from the fourerns used for fishing and everyday travel but the better racers were purpose built using the best gear of the day for sporting advantage. By the 1930’s there were Shetland racing boats active in most districts of the mainland and the larger islands. In some places sailing clubs had been set up for decades and new clubs emerged throughout the period. The Clubs each organised an annual regatta in the summer where local and visiting racing boats competed for substantial prize money for the period watched by hundreds of spectators. Regattas were the largest social gatherings in the Isles at the time involving a variety of water sports in addition to sailing and land sports, all in a carnival atmosphere.

The First Inter-Club Regattas

The earliest record of discussions to hold an inter-club sailing competition date from September 1928, a minute of a Lerwick Boating Club meeting. This discussion followed a successful trip to Uyeasound by the Ripple and the Surf in August of that year to  race against boats from Baltasound, Cullivoe, Uyeasound, Basta Voe, Mid Yell and Burravoe. Subsequent discussion in 1929 involved the mainland clubs of Waas, Brae, Aith and the Bridge of Waas, with Scalloway and Whalsay sending apologies. These discussions did not result in inter-club racing at that time. Nothing more happened until after the Second World War when Lerwick Boating Club again took up the initiative to set up an Inter-Club Regatta. This time the interest from other clubs led to the first Inter -Club Regatta being sailed in 1948. The Commodore of the Lerwick Boating Club, Mr L.W. Smith led the Regatta. Other officials were Mr J. Linklater and Mr J, Johnston. Captain W. Isbister and Lerwick Harbour Trust staff assisted in the arrangements.

Following the success of the first Regatta, the Zetland Inter-Club Yachting Association was constituted with a membership of all the clubs sending boats to sail in the Regatta. In 1970 the "Zetland" name was dropped in favour of the present Shetland Inter-Club Yachting Association.

 The format for the  first Regatta was two allcomer fore and aft races for Shetland Models, one Dipping Lug race and two team races. In particular the event was well supported by the Island communities of Whalsay, Yell and Unst with the highest  Mainland Interest from Lerwick and Scalloway. The Isles boats set the standard in the first years with the Fern, Cormorant and Gracie from Whalsay, Flying Cloud and Laughing Water from Unst and Miss Gadabout and Betsy from Yell being the main prizewinners in these early Regattas. The first cups sailed for at the Regatta were the Memorial Cup presented by Lerwick Boating Club for the team race and the North Challenge Cup presented by the North of Scotland Shipping Company for the first allcomers race. These cups were awarded in 1948 and the Stout Cup for dipping lug dates from 1949.

The Ballasted Stalwarts

The sails of the 1930’s were well developed for racing but they were of their time and not particularly efficient for generating boatspeed. Large areas of canvass were needed to race these boats. And that meant that the boats had to carry sufficient ballast to counteract the lateral force of the sails or the boats would have capsized too easily. For a time the drive was to build longer boats with larger sails and heavier ballast. Some of the ballast was set in the gabart above the keel and remained in place during the race. Some more was used as shifting ballast to trim the vessel according to the point of sail. The crew number was set at three, so with the helm and jibman fully occupied with their sails, the midroom-man was responsible for shifting ballast and for baling. In the bigger boats tacking and gybing could involve shifting 6 hundredweight (305 kg) of ballast every time. Inter-Club regattas were sailed over two days so the crew were generally fairly tired by the end of the event.

The Inter-Club began with this type of ballasted Shetland racer and it was the staple competitor throughout the 1950’s before being outclassed by the lighter models that began to appear by 1955. Well sailed ballasted boats continued to be very competitive in the 1960’s with Lerwick’s Surf (L11), Sud Ayre (L10) and White Falcon (__) being prevalent in that era. The last open race to be won by a ballasted boat was the John Stewart Trophy in 1983 which was won by Whalsay’s Silver Spray. Another famous Whalsay ballasted boat White Wings was part of their winning Memorial Cup team in 1982. The era of the ballasted racers came to an end in 1999 when Lerwick’s Ripple won the Waari Geo and Bressay cups that year. These magnificent racing boats were the legacy that the modern Shetland racers derived from. They were sailed as a class for over 70 years and in the Inter-Club for over 50 years. Twelve of Lerwick’s 23 Memorial Cup victories were won with ballasted Boats.

The Early Non Ballasted boats

With the keen and growing interest in race sailing in Shetland in the 1950’s,some of the more competitively minded looked to gain advantage by altering the design of the racers. Races were run using an actual starting line with all boats lying to that line until their time to start was given. There were no free sailing starts until the 1970s. With the boats starting from a standing start according to their handicapped time, there was advantage in getting away early if you could keep ahead. Leaner boats with shorter waterline length and carrying less sail could gain minutes over the more traditional ballasted racers at the start of a race. There was also an advantage in carrying less ballast if you could. The most prominent of the early lighter boats was the Maid of Thule. Designed by Duncan Sandision and built by _______ This Unst racer won her first Inter-Club cups in 1956 and influenced a class of light ballasted and ballast free boats, particularly in the North Isles Clubs. Called “Maids” because many were named so, these boats became regular cup winners by the late 1950’s and early 1960s with the likes of the Maid of the Isles, the Maid of Venture and Bluebird all winning at that time. In time the new design, which enabled planeing in the right conditions, was adopted more generally inspiring the building of other new boats such as Lerwick’s Barracouda and Maid Lisa.

Maids

Apart from gaining time at the start there were many other advantages from sailing the new Maid class boats. They were easier and far cheaper to rig than the bigger boats and the absence of ballast made them easier to trim on the water and far less cumbersome to work with on the shore. That being so, they caught on fast and by the mid 1960s all new boats were unballasted craft. In 1968 the Arctic Mist swept the Regatta clean and in so doing heralded the golden era of the Maid class. Built sharper and lighter than even the earlier Maids, the Arctic Mist was the most exciting spectacle on the water, and could plane faster and longer than any of the other boats. Increasing numbers of the Maid class boats began to appear at Regattas all over Shetland and with them came the time of the big Inter Club Regattas. Increased participation from the West Side Clubs  Waas and Aith from the late 1960’s with more interest from the North Isles in addition to the expansion of the Lerwick and Whalsay clubs meant that the prizes were shared a lot more evenly in the 1970’s than in the previous decade. The more prominent winning Maids in the 1970’s and early 1980’s were Maid o’Saaness (Waas), Arctic Mist (Lerwick), Sundance (Yell), Maid o’ Waas (Waas), Venus (Aith), Sceptre (Whalsay), Ruby (Yell) and Windsong (Yell).

The Super Regattas

To understand how popular sailing had become in Shetland by the early 1980’s you only need to examine the Inter-Club programmes of that era. 66 Shetland Models entered the 1983 Regatta, and if you add the 3 boats that only sailed the Dipping Lug races along with the 16 dinghy entrants and the 11 junior dinghies the total entry was 96. An amazing 261 people participated in the Regatta that year and that was the level of participation for a period of around 15 years from 1975 until 1990. In the 72 year history of the Inter-Club Regatta (up to 2018) 129 different Shetland Models have won fore and aft cups and 36 of those boats were racing in the 1983 Regatta. Winning a race or even finishing in the top ten when there were over 60 competitors in the race was a real achievement. You needed to be exceptionally good to win a race and many excellent crews raced for years without winning any races. There were entries in all classes from 14 different parts of Shetland – 31 from Lerwick, 19 from Whalsay, 11 from Unst (6 Baltasound and 5 Uyeasound), 8 from Scalloway, 6 from Delting, 6 from Yell (4 South Yell, 2 Mid Yell), 4 from Waas, 4 from Reawick, 3 from Burra, 2 from Aith and one each from Whiteness and Bressay. The number of competitors began to tail off in the late 1980s for a number of reasons, the foremost being a growing interest in other sports and activities in the summer time. The large gatherings at regattas began to subside as people became interested in more diverse activities leaving the racing enthusiasts to keep the sport going.

Dinghies

The increasing popularity of dinghy sailing in post-war Britain was also apparent in Shetland. By the 1950s a number of dinghies were interested in participating in the regatta and were regarded in the same new light as the non-ballasted Shetland models at that time. The first specific cup for non ballasted boats including dinghies was the Cruister cup in 1957 which was quickly designated as solely for dinghy races by 1960 and has continued so since that time. The personnel at the RAF base in Unst introduced the first Albacore dinghies providing alternative sailing in the North Isles to the Shetland Models. These Unst albacores won steadily at the Inter-Club from 1960 and the class was prevalent until into the 21st century. They were joined by the 505s and fireballs from the Scalloway Boating Club in the early 1970s to provide a basis for an expanding dinghy scene to which in particular GP14s, Lasers and eventually Flying Fifteens were added from other parts of the islands. The Team race trophy was added in 1972 and three open class trophies (P&O Trophy, Scalloway Inter-Club trophy and the Unst Dinghy Trophy) were awarded for the first time in the late 1970’s. The current list of trophies was concluded by the mid 1990s to provide 6 races and three performance trophies. Since the 1980’s the Shetland dinghy scene is coordinated at the Lerwick Boating Club with less interest from other clubs . The main dinghy classes are the fireballs and flying fifteens with occasional interest from other classes such as albacores, lasers and tasers. The fireball dinghy White Lightning, helmed by Willum Mouatt, has won significantly more trophies at the Regatta than any other competitor with a total of 95 at the end of the 2019 regatta. Harum Scarum, a Fireball, sailed by Brydon Leask between 1993 and 2003, winning 22 trophies. Other notable performances have been from Peter Tait’s Fireball Trojan and the Flying Fifteens sailed by Kenny Leask (Ffireblade then Under Pressure) and Brian Wishart (All or Nothing), Scott Nicholson’s Tidal Fire (fireball) and the Albacore’s Lintie, Huney, Balti, Blue Mist and High Tension.

Dipping Lug

The most traditional of all racing sailing rigs in Shetland, the dipping lug derives from the sails used for working boats and everyday travel in times when most transport was by sea.  Further back still, these sails can be traced from the square sails used in Norse times. The dipping lug was selected for Inter-Club competition ahead of the standing lug rig because it was easier to handle while tacking and gybing (wearing). This rig has been a standard for racing at the regatta since 1949 and is still used on the modern Shetland Model boat.

In the early years the Fern from Whalsay set the pace, winning four Stout Cups from 1949 to 1952 and again in 1955.

The three race format for dipping lug rig dates from 1961. From that time a whole day has been dedicated to dipping lug racing.

The more notable performances since 1949 have been recorded by three clubs: Whalsay, Waas and Yell. Foremost is the performance of Jim Tait of Waas with Cuttshang (14 trophies), Krak-At (7 trophies) and Flat-Oot (1 trophy). He has won races over a period of 45 years. Whalsay’s Kon Tiki, helmed by Laurence Irvine, is the best performer of the modern era, taking 15 trophies. At the time of writing this piece in 2019 the Bluebell of Waas, sailed by Andrew Tait was the most successful vessel, winning 16 trophies from 1962 to 1991. A remarkable achievement by a boat of most traditional lines in an era of rapid changes in hull and sail design. Jim Bob  Smith, sailing for South Yell won 11 cups with Bella in the 1990’s and 2000’s following earlier success with Ruby (4 trophies) in the late 1970’s.

Junior Sailing

Junior competition has been included in the Inter-Club Regatta since the late 1960’s. Properly organised Junior sailing began in Shetland with the development of a locally built class of Cadet dinghies, largely through the efforts of a group of technical teachers leading to a successful schools regatta in June every year. The work of the Sea Scouts in Lerwick was also very important in developing the sport. People like Alastair Jackson and Bertie Mowat were instrumental in encouraging the participation of young sailors. The first trophy was the North Roe Cup, presented in 1968 and won that year and the following two by Sealkie. The Cadet dinghy continued to be the main dinghy for juniors in the 1970’s before fading out as the Mirror dinghy came to the fore. The Mirror dinghy trophy was introduced in 1979, due to the popularity of the class and was won by Moder Dy that year. Mirror sailing grew in the 1980’s and reached its height in the 1990’s with fleets of 30 dinghies being common at the Regatta . The first team race was won by Waas (Linga, Galti and Vaila) in 1993.

Over the whole period of junior sailing to 2019, 44 Cadets and Mirror dinghies have won Inter-Club trophies. These trophies have been spread over seven clubs (Lerwick, Sandwick, Waas, Delting, Scalloway, Yell and Aith). The Sandwick Mirror Seamew has won the most individual trophies, 26, since its first win at the Regatta in 1995.

Most of the senior competing sailors in Shetland gained their first experience of sailing in the Cadet and Mirror dinghy racing. While Mirror sailing is highly competitive in its own right, it is also the grass roots of the sport and needs to be encouraged for the sake of the future of sailing in Shetland.

High Tech Sailing

The modern era has witnessed the development of the Shetland Model into a super- efficient racing boat capable of speeds of 12+ knots in a moderate breeze. These boats are built of light plywood using epoxy resin glues and are equipped with the most up-to-date sails and gear. This fast racer emerged from the developing maid class in the 1980’s and has been raced for around 30 years. The most successful of this new breed of boats is the Comet of Whalsay, helmed by Laurence Irvine, winner of 72 cups in recent years. It comes just ahead of the Solus of Lerwick, helmed by Brydon Leask which has won 69 cups. Other excellent performaces have been recorded by Whalsay’s Scunner (Gibby Irvine) with 38 trophies, Whalsay’s Skirmish (Johnnie Simpson) with 25 trophies, and Lerwick’s Vela (Scott Nicholson) with 10 trophies.

© 2018 by John Irvine https://www.johnirvine-multimediaartist.com/.

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