Three Rivers race is a tale of risks, great escapes and a Punt City jam
- Credit: Archant
As the 85 starters listened to the pre-race briefing, the key questions on everyone's mind were how long the race was going to be and whether the wind was going to last overnight.
With warm sunshine and a light breeze, there were pleasant conditions for the competitors undertaking the approximately 50-mile inland endurance race. It is always a test of seamanship which would take them under the medieval bridge at Potter Heigham to Hickling Broad, under Acle Bridge to a turning buoy at the Stracey Windpump, onto South Walsham Broad and along the Ant to Ludham Bridge, completing the course in whichever order the crews felt would be most beneficial for wind and tide conditions. With the tide predicted to change at Acle in the early afternoon, all but five competitors opted to sail to Acle first, with many of the faster boats also completing both the Ludham Bridge and South Walsham legs first.
As the winds dropped during the afternoon, with many competitors also fighting the tide, it was set to be a lengthy night for participants. However, winds picked up after dusk, which meant good progress in the moonlight conditions. That was, until boats started gathering on a tree-covered bend just beyond Horning Church. The first few boats made it through with relatively few problems, but once a few struggled to make it around the corner in the sheltered spot against the tide, it soon become a frustration.
With originally several Punts stranded and some of the fastest sailing cruisers, described by one of the sailors as 'Punt City', they were gradually joined by more and more competitors, with only one or two breaking free every hour or so. With some sailors stuck there for six hours or more, it became a real leveller, with all types and sizes of craft in the mix, and resulted in the majority of the fleet rafting up there.
As the sun rose the winds picked up, but to little avail until the tide turned to take competitors home, with finishers coming thick and fast. With the last boats back by 10am this provided some of the most mixed results seen in recent years.
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First home and first overall in a little over eight hours was Paul Browning helming Thames A Rater Osprey, crewed by Graham Bartholom and Justin Dunn – his second win, having previously won in 2014 – ahead of James Dugdale, crewed by Henry Harston and Martin Thompson sailing another Rater, Bonito, one of the few who had opted to sail straight to Hickling, and showing that there was ultimately very little difference in the routes taken this year.
Third overall were Richard Whitefoot and Giles Bradford sailing Norfolk Punt Comet2, ahead of another Rater, Lady Jane, sailed by Nick Fribbens, crewed by Matt Kyte and Kevin Pearson some five hours ahead of the next finisher.
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Completing the top 10 was last year's winner, Martin Hunter, sailing Merlin Rocket Quiver, Peter Bainbridge helming Yarmouth One Design Helen, Kevin Edwards helming Norfolk Dinghy Minnie, the River Cruisers of Chris Bunn and Clive Richardson, sailing Skylark and Ladybird respectively, with production cruiser Aslan, helmed by Jeremy Nunns, in his first Three Rivers Race, 10th.
Some of those which were at the bottleneck but not lucky enough to get through earlier were severely affected in the results, such as Richie Dugdale's Zingara who had been neck and neck with Skylark up to that point, but finished 51st on handicap. This also happened with the Norfolk Punts, with the exception of Comet, which all finished 52nd or later.
The bridges provided their usual share of excitement, with huge crowds gathering on Potter Heigham and Acle Bridge to celebrate – or commiserate – with competitors on their lowering and raising. As always, several shot the bridge in spectacular fashion, with some leaving it to the last moment possible to drop their rig, much to the delight of spectators.
At one point there was a two-way meeting under Potter Heigham Bridge, with a Cruiser and Rater trying to get through in opposite directions at the same time, only to be joined by another Cruiser and a Rebel, miraculously all making it through.
The race saw several new, younger competitors take part in their first, including three Fireflys from the UEA Sailing Club, whilst the team of William Penny, 17, Christopher Willis, 17, and Henry Whipp, 16, persisted to finish in 21st place, in the process raising funds and awareness for the Dystonia Society and Horning Sailing Club Training Centre, to date raising £1,250.
Despite the challenging conditions, the race only saw 12 retirements.