A memorable event – the start is the biggest finish

Paul Larsen
Friday 08 November 2013


The 2013 ICCCC is now done and dusted and once again it proved to be a fascinating and memorable event. I'm not fully aware of what had transpired within the Invictus camp prior to our involvement this time but it was obvious that the team had taken on a lot (as they also had the responsibility of hosting the biggest C-class event in recent time) and that they were struggling. Getting a C-class catamaran ready for battle is a battle on its own so it was no doubt that running the event was going to be a huge distraction. "Struggling" is perhaps too soft a description for what confronted us when Helena and I drove up to Bristol on the 30th of August to see the state of affairs. We had had very little involvement prior to this but were curious to see how our old team were getting along. We wanted to get involved and actually I felt a little guilty for just waltzing up this late in the program. I soon lost that sensation.

A key delivery of major wing components had just arrived from overseas. They consisted of the flaps and the entire wing leading edge. We all decided that this would be a good time for us to arrive as we can be quite handy around the build side of things and finishing the details so the boat can actually go sailing. We walked into Dan Emuss' shed preparing to say hello to friends old and new and was greeted by a group of shocked and stunned people. I looked to my left at what was on the table and my mind raced to piece the scene together. For one reason or another the components that the team were waiting for had arrived in a form that was completely useless to us. The design and construction had changed so much that we simply had to write it off. There was now only three weeks to go until the actual race started. The wing build was already way behind schedule and now it had been dealt a death blow. We had a main spar with the ribs bonded on and that was it. No flaps, no leading edge, no hinges, or control systems...and no tooling to make the flaps or leading edge... oh...and next to no money.

I walked through Dan's shed and out the other side. Semi-jokingly I yelled back to Helena to do the same. "Keep walking honey...just keep walking". Norman looked devastated as the gravity of the situation began to settle on his shoulders. I stood outside and considered the options. This was bad. We wanted to help but this really was impossible. The thing was...that the other option was to not have a go. We were all well justified to walk away and to blame others for the predicament we had been put in. I also knew where that would put us. It would put us as a bunch of sad cases walking around the event we wanted to be at, telling a story of woe to the people we admire who were doing what we wanted to be doing. It meant that there would be no British boat racing at the biggest and best C-class catamaran event in recent times which was to be sailed on UK waters. It meant that all the work had been done thus far would be wasted and that would leave a sour taste and a legacy of distrust for future teams taking on difficult challenges. We had come up to help...not to take on a full-on mission but that was beside the point. We now had a full-on mission...or nothing. I looked around at who was present and we began talking more about what we DID have. We DID have the CAD files ready for tooling manufacture. Dan DID have build space, workers and time he could put on the job. Helena and I could make time to purely focus on turning this around. The flap hinges COULD be made on time if the ALM manufacturing team within Filton got onto it. Apparently the rest of the boat was in pretty much good shape. 

At that point we chose to act like champions...by going to the pub. It was in the confines of the Nova Scotia that we breathed deeply...and began working out what we needed to do to turn this all around.

The winning approach in the 'Nova Scotia'...it's where the 'magic' happens!

All the time I was trying to work out exactly what we DID have and what our options were. To be honest I didn't think we had a big chance of success. I was also very weary of putting in a lot of effort only to have an average end product that none of us truly wanted to stand beside. Dan and I both have a very good feel for what is realistically achievable with this type of composite construction. We both know the processes very well and what is involved on the many levels. Whilst we knew we didn't have any money at that stage, what we needed to know was even if we did have money, could we find the materials and facilities to turn it around within the time frame we had. We worked out that if we cut all the corners and rigidly stuck to a schedule that we could make it. Any idea of test sailing and boat trials was thrown out. Our mission was simply to be on the first start line with a respectable, competitive C-Class catamaran.

We kept pushing forward and gathering as much information as we could. There was no way that any individual was going to salvage this. We would have to use all the team and we couldn't afford to fumble the ball. Many of the decisions were way past discussion time. Educated guesses and shoot-from-the-hip engineering had to be made. It already felt good to be talking about turning the problem around rather than absorbing failure. We did as much as we could that first night and then retired.

The next day I went up to Filton to see the rest of the boat. I wanted to do a full assembly to get a true idea of how ready it was. Many/most of the team are non sailors and aren't familiar with how that boat goes together. With all our attention focused on the wing I had to be sure that there were no 'clangers' waiting further down the line. I was happy with what I saw. It was actually pretty cool to see the ol' girl looking in such good shape. She's got some history and I felt we owed it to her to put her on the start line in less than three weeks time to make some more.

Helena and I left Bristol that night. A plan was in place, quotes were coming in, budgets were forming and loose ends were being chased. The team had been reinvigorated as the focus was now fully on making the start. There wasn't much else Helena and I needed to be there for until other parts were in place. We kept inside the information loop and pushed, prodded and advised as necessary. To be honest I still didn't give us much of a chance as we were so vulnerable to being let down by outside parties. I think we all had that uneasiness in the back of our minds...but the thing was, we were still in the fight. We could only give it our best shot. Because we had our 'net in the water', we began to catch opportunities. Other people began to step up. Norman now had all the quotes and information to chase a monetary amount that we could all work to. The amount had to be agreed to ASAP so the tooling could be manufactured. Thankfully the people who had put us in this position agreed to help us as best they could to rectify the problem. From there we could get the CNC machines spinning to make the flap moulds. We needed to have two going at once in parallel as we didn't have the time to do them back to back. The National Composites Center offered to do the upper flap tooling and one of Dans suppliers did the lower flap. Dan and I came up with a plan to make the leading edge out of polystyrene foam. Dan "knew a guy" in the classic Bristol docklands tradition who was 'gun' foam carver. Together they did a brilliant job of a very difficult shape. I was concerned about this part as it would have been easy to make it both rough and heavy. The end result was neither.

'Sticky' Dan also does 'Dusty' and makes the potentially troublesome problem of the 43 foot long compound curved leading edge...go away.

The minute the CNC machine stopped spinning up at the NCC, Helena and I arrived to build the top flap. Nick Hewlings offered to help. Whilst he is now employed at the NCC, Nick has also joined us down in Namibia to help with one of our sessions on VESTAS Sailrocket. He was a great asset to us then and now.

Meanwhile up at the NCC...the top flap shells come together in double time. Eight days to go to the start gun.

We worked flat out at the NCC and in a couple of days we had a new top flap 'blank' loaded onto the top of the VW and we drove it to Dans workshop. I loved the 'fever' that had overcome us. It was now happening. Real bits were turning up and the whole 'can do' snowball was gaining momentum. The trouble was that the schedule was still incredibly tight. We had two very heavy 'blank' flaps and a Leading edge... but we now only had exactly 1 week until the event started. I think people both inside and outside the team were getting caught up in the 'all or nothing' attitude. Thankfully Dan let us take over his shed for the weekend so we used the opportunity to get as much done as possible. We kept chopping bigger and bigger windows out of the flaps in order to get the weight reasonable.

Chop, chop. The windows are cut out of the heavy flap shells. We had three goes at this in an effort to get them down to an acceptable weight. Seven days to go to the gun.

Team members new and old came down to the shed to help out wherever possible some times just standing around and waiting until a job came up. It all counted.

The wing is partly assembled for the first time. Five days to the start gun.

Helen makes the wing's 'tiara'.

Go team! In a couple of hours this is all in the trailer with the boat ready to be towed to Falmouth in the morning. Five days to the gun.

So we drove the flap to Dans on a Saturday and by Tuesday night...the whole boat and wing was loaded into the trailer bound for Falmouth. 
Every step forward was a success. Every step forward was a reward for taking up the challenge. We were already feeling like we were winning and we hadn't even made the start. Each day felt like a week as no single process could be allowed to hold up the whole. The hope and the vision was still alive.

Helena and I arrived at Falmouth around 2 AM, the trailer arrived around midday. A week or so earlier I had figured that it was only worth the effort on my part if I got the chance to sail on the boat. On the drive down I realised that this would be a bit selfish and not ideal. I knew it was highly likely we would still need to do some very late nights repairing and modifying throughout the event and that I could do the most good there. It would be too big an ask to sail all day and then work through the night. It was time to let the young guns loose on the boat. 
We found a new temporary home in one of the Phipps' sheds and set to in finishing the wing. My mind was in overdrive trying to think about the job in front of me whilst trying to also see the next one...and the next one, etc. Everyone was busy.

Now down to Falmouth and working late into the night to start putting it all together for real. Four days to the gun.

Old friends from previous events and members of the other teams were aware of our situation and they all filtered through our shed to see what we were up against. C-class catamarans are rare and exotic craft. Everyone was happy to see us giving it our all to bring another one back to life. It's the underlying spirit of the class and the people in it. It's why, if we truly considered ourselves fit to walk amongst them, that we had to give it our best go. Most of these guys wandering through our 'situation' had been in our position before and know that they could well be again at any moment with these particular boats.

Now we had all the big bits, we still had to chase all the details that would turn it into a fully functional race boat within a couple of days.
We stood the bare first section of the wing up on the boat on the Thursday evening in order to get all the rigging right. 

Boat...meet Wing. Wing...this is Boat!

Up she goes for the firt time. Three days to the gun.

It was a great moment although we didn't have time to ponder it as it had to come down and go back into the shed to have the flaps fitted and all the control lines run. We had set ourselves the goal of having the boat in the water the following day at 3:30 PM for a photo-shoot. This meant the wing had to be fully skinned with heat-shrink covering and also fully logo'd.

Skinning up the wing.

Huw fitting all the small details. Here he is drawing on some veterinary skills he learned growing up on a farm! Two and a half days to the gun.

For me, that night was one of the highlights of the whole experience. I sat back in a chair to update one of the sailing websites. Music was playing and Phil from GURIT had turned up with a case of encouragement (beer). Before me was the full wing in all its glory. I counted ten people working on it. Everyone was focused on whatever their particular job was. It is such a great thing to see a team come together and all start pulling in the one direction. Not one person in that shed was getting paid one dollar to be there. They were all doing it because they were had a passion to see this amazing craft take to the water. An environment had been created that encouraged and allowed everyone to participate to the best of their abilities and together we were making something special.

I was determined that we stick to the plan and make the 3:30 PM photo-shoot. This would mean that the photos would be delivered by 4:00 PM. I kept giving people countdowns on how long they had on their respective jobs. Logo's were still getting smoothed on as the boat was rolling towards the water.

At 3:30 precisely... Invictus was in the water before one very proud team... and looking absolutely fantastic.

Out, up and in she goes...for photo purposes only. Three days earlier that wing was still in Dan's workshop in a very raw form. One and a half days to the gun!

Once the photos were taken, the wing was taken down and was taken to be measured. She was within a few square centimeters of her allowable area... so spot on really. After midnight we put her to rest in her new tent.

Invictus went for her first sail on the afternoon before the first day of racing. It was a very light wind affair but nonetheless, with very little drama, the boys turned her away from the beach, sheeted on the wing and she just popped up on one hull and, with Norman onboard to see his wing in action, she sailed gracefully off. What a beautiful and rewarding sight that was. She was alive once more.

And there she goes. Norman enjoying a sight he could scarcely have conceived a couple of weeks before.

I was actually on the water filling in for one of the other helms on another C-class. It was good to line up against Invictus to see how she was going. It was very light and the boys would take some time to get familiar with her...but damn she looked cool...and every now and then she would show a turn of speed that was not only surprising but downright impressive. I later had a shot at helming her and it was obvious that the new wing that Norman had designed had transformed her. She had 'grunt' and felt slippery. This was all very interesting. 

After her first sail, Invictus sits dripping on the lawn amongst her kind. The gun will fire the following morning.

We spent another late night changing the mainsheet attachment point amongst other things but otherwise she would be on the start line the following day.

Race day dawned with a nice little breeze. Just the right amount for day 1 really. I had been given the opportunity now to race on one of the other boats and I just couldn't help myself. I love these boats and these opportunities don't come up very often in ones life. Before we took to the water, all the teams lined up in front of their boats for a group photo. Behind every team there was a great story... and a lot of passion. Invictus took her position in the line-up and looked right at home. In many ways we had made it. Considering our position only a couple of weeks ago, the start line was always going to be our biggest finish line and we made it with a boat and team that we were all proud to be associated with.

Race day...Norman takes a moment to soak up a beautiful sight. Imagine how incomplete this scene cold have been without our boat in it. This scene and how it made us all feel..left us in no doubt that it was all well and truly worth the effort.

A few hours later Invictus took the first starting gun with the rest of the fleet.

Bang! Tom and Cedric get a clean start to windward and Invictus quickly shows that she is a bit of a weapon upwind in the light stuff with height and speed off the start line.

Tom and Cedric disappeared into the fog fighting for second place. That race was later cancelled due to lack of visibility...but from what we did see...she was fast.

By taking that start gun, we as a team, had won our first race. Now we had to deal with the reality of how this last minute preparation would affect us over the course of the real event.

(Massive thanks to Dan and his team at Independent Composites and to Nick and everyone at the NCC who made their input possible... and of course to everyone who helped in every big and little way to turn a dire situation around.)

Paul Larsen