If there’s a silver lining to the huge cloud of rain that has been dumping mercilessly on Great Britain in recent weeks, causing horrific floods across the country, it’s that at least the reservoirs are full again.  

It seems unimaginable that only last February I managed to run aground in the middle of Draycote Water while competing at the Draycote Dash in my Musto Skiff. In fact the only reason why the Dash was being held then instead of November 2011 was because the water levels were even lower a year ago.  

Fast forward 12 rainy months, and the Draycote Dash went ahead as scheduled on the last weekend of November. It was the first event of six in this season’s GJW Direct Sailjuice Winter Series, formerly known as the SailJuice Global Warm-Up. I didn’t make it there myself but it was an interesting event to follow from a distance. Many sailors - even most of the frontrunners - had very up and down scores on the first day, when four races took place.  

The reason, so I learnt, was that racing started in not much more than 4 knots but by the end of the day had built to 14 knots. As you’d expect, the faster, high-powered classes struggled in the light but did better as the breeze picked up. If you’re sailing a trapeze boat but not getting the opportunity to use your trapeze, the handicap odds are stacked against you. On the other hand, if you’re sailing a hiking boat and are having to ease sheets to keep the boat flat, you’re probably not going to do that well either.  

At the end of that day there were nine different classes in the top 10 of the leaderboard, with a wide range of boat types represented. So, not much for anyone to complain about there. To me, this is further vindication of the good work done by the Great Lakes group of handicap experts who have analysed the data from many races over the past few years and adjusted class handicap numbers accordingly. Last year some of the development classes - the Cherub and the International 14 in particular - were pegged back massively from their standard RYA number. But this was only because the inertia in the old RYA paper returns system meant the handicap numbers never kept up with the pace of progress in these development classes.  

Now, after two years of quite big movements for some classes, the numbers are beginning to settle down. There will still be some gaps in data because it requires boats from any given class to turn up and participate. Some classes like to do these events, others don’t. But overall, most classes now have a number where a top sailor racing the boat close to its potential has a chance of winning. Well done to Peter Nelson for being that man at Draycote aboard his RS600, by the way.  

But the next frontier, IMHO, are wind-based handicaps, and no class needs that more than the International Moth. In those four races at Draycote, Gareth Davies’ Moth improved from 80th and 56th in the first two races to get up on the hydrofoils for an 8th and 2nd in the final two heats. That’s the difference between ‘low-riding’ or ‘foiling’. At about 8 knots windspeed, the Moth transforms from horse & cart to the Millennium Falcon.  

OK, the Moth is as an extreme an example you can find, but a look at the Draycote results indicates a continuation of that trend in the more conventional boats. For this reason I’ve been badgering the Great Lakes experts to look at the possibility of a different set of numbers for a drifter, and a different set again for a howling gale. Of course, easy for me to suggest, much harder to put into practice.  

And then the Sunday of the Draycote Dash really did present the biggest challenge for wind-based handicapping. The 100-minute Pursuit Race started off the back of a night of raging gales, and was still blowing well above 20 knots when the slowest boats crossed the start line in the morning. By the end of the race it had dropped to less than 10 knots. So how do you set a handicap for that? That’s a tough one, I admit. At least with the standard handicap races you can set the handicap numbers retrospectively after the race has finished (although the handicap officer would need to be wearing full body armour before walking into the bar with the results). With a pursuit race, once it starts there is no changing the numbers.  

Still, there are some days where you probably shouldn’t be going sailing - either because it’s a flat calm or a raging gale - and those are the days when we need different handicap numbers.  

Two fastest sailors in the world?  

So farewell to Ben Ainslie, who retires from Olympic sailing but embarks on a new chapter aboard two hulls in the America’s Cup. The fastest sailor ever? In many senses, yes, but in the absolute sense, the fastest sailor in the world is currently Paul Larsen who after 10 years of hard graft and tireless enthusiasm has piloted Vestas SailRocket 2 to a new speed record in excess of 65 knots. Paul is an Aussie, still sounds Aussie, but with Swedish girlfriend Helena Darvelid has been living in the UK for the past decade. And with chief designer Malcolm Barnsley hailing from Southampton, we’ll claim SailRocket’s success as a Great British triumph! Congratulations to Paul and crew.