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17 September 2003, 12:03 pm
Spithill Gives Title Away
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Australian Women's Match Racing Championship

RPAYC in Sydney yesterday, scored first and second places in the National Women's Match Racing Championship conducted on a chilly Derwent River in Hobart.
Even though Mount Wellington was getting a dusting of snow, there was some hot action, as well as heat on the water, when the country's two best teams in women's match racing met in the finals.

The reigning national titleholders, helmed by Katie SPITHILL and crewed by Emma BULLOUGH and Rochanne BARRATT, handed over (only just temporarily, says Katie) the baton as the nation's best to Nicky SOUTER, Stacey JACKSON and Nina CURTIS, in some very tight and tense match racing.

Racing in the round robin series was terminated with one flight to go, as the results of the matches in that flight would not have affected the makeup of the semi finals. As a consequence, round robin leader, Nicky, chose to sail against the girls from Royal Perth Yacht Club, leaving Katie to race against the fast improving girls from the host club, Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania.

Each of the two teams won their semi finals with a 2:0 scorecard, although Katie, in the second of her matches, was given a fright by Clare Brown's team, who forced an uncommon mistake from her in a port/starboard incident which resulted in a penalty against Katie, a consequent flustered start, and a trailing position off the start line.

A lengthy and energy-sapping tacking duel up the first beat was required for Katie to work her way through the cover applied by the Tasmanian girls and eke out a narrow lead at the windward mark. After the downwind leg to the leeward mark, Katie had established a lead of 17 seconds, which was enough for her to do her penalty turn on the next windward leg and still be in front, just. The finishing margin of five seconds in Katie's favour showed how hard the Tasmanian girls worked to keep in the race.

Nicky had far less trouble beating the WA girls and went through with winning margins of 1:05 and 52 seconds.

After the sail off for third and fourth places was conducted, and under threatening skies which produced snow on the mountain, the final series finally got under way.

The first race was abandoned as the breeze swung wildly and faded. In the re-sail of the first of the best of five matches, Katie won the pre-start manoeuvres and led off the start line.

A furious tacking duel, which continued up the first half of the beat, was started by Nicky's team and when the boats subsequently elected to take opposite sides of the course, one to seek the aid of the tide and the other of what seemed to be more pressure, the bets had been placed and the wheel was spinning at the nearby casino.

As it turned out, the tide won and Nicky was able to sail just a fraction to windward of Katie's boat when they came together again near the top mark.

Nicky was lucky to be able to prevent Katie from tacking to the mark, and Katie unlucky not to have a penalty against Nicky during the subsequent rounding.

After the first windward mark, the breeze shifted again, and what should have been a square run turned into a tight reach, and the next windward beat into a soldier's course, so that Katie had no opportunity to catch up and had to suffer a loss by 13 seconds. A protest by Katie to the umpires about the course construction fell on deaf ears. First score to Nicky's team.

The second match again suffered as a result of a major wind shift and this time, the result of the race and the result of the protest against the Race Committee regarding the absence of a changed course to deal with that wind shift went against Nicky. The teams were now level.

The third match was, for the most part, an extremely close affair in a very light breeze. Whilst Nicky's team was able to draw out a 14 second lead on the first beat, Katie's team was able to catch and hold some breeze on the downwind leg, to close right up and become outside overlapped with Nicky's team by the bottom mark.

However, that new breeze meant that the next windward beat was a single lay to the next mark, which in turn meant that Katie had to sail in the dirty air of Nicky's boat.

Consequently, Katie was unable to close the gap and, when the boats rounded the windward mark and found that the breeze had swung yet again and the boats were faced with a close hauled leg to the finish boat on starboard tack instead of the usual downwind spinnaker run, it was, well, 'all over red rover'. Nicky's team 2:1

The last race produced the rather unusual sight of the start pin being directly to windward of the committee boat (as a result of yet another wind shift during the course of the pre-start) and the boats, instead of reaching along the line, having to put in a number of tacks just to get to the pin. Despite this, the new breeze ended up providing the fairest and most consistent wind for racing.

Nicky's team opened up a reasonable lead at the first windward mark but Katie's team sailed a better downwind leg to be just one boat length behind at the leeward mark. Katie and crew fought extremely hard on the next beat to break Nicky's tight cover, and half way up the work the boats were bow to bow whenever they came together on opposite tacks.

Nicky kept banging Katie's boat off to the right and, ever so slowly, was able to build a sufficient lead to be able to finally cross ahead of Katie and take the windward controlling position on the approach to the top mark again.

There was a 12 second margin at this final mark. There followed an intense gybing duel downwind, and for Nina Curtis, the bowman on Nicky's boat, a stressful last 50 metres when the trip line on the spinnaker pole frayed apart with one more gybe to perform and Katie on the charge and right on their hammer. Nina and Stacey were able to keep the kite full during the necessary gybe, despite this, and to scrape home by just four seconds and secure the vital third win.

This regatta showed that there is very little at all between these two teams, with each having different strengths and different weaknesses. How effectively each team can, over the coming year until the next Nationals, work to consolidate their strengths and eliminate their weaknesses will very likely determine who comes home from Perth next September as the hotshots of women's match-racing in Australia.

David Lukins
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