Five adventurous UK sailors made their way across the channel to Ostend, Belgium to participate in what is perhaps the least-known best Europe class event in Europe, the legendary Open Belgium Championship.
With a huge diversity in the fleet, men and women from six nations across a wide range of ages and ability, the event caters for all. There were French sailors who looked like they had been sailing Europes for decades and local Belgium and German youngsters with enough bravery to push hard downwind in the steep rolling waves that the North Sea Coast line provided.
The individuality of the masts and sails to suit sailors of all sizes helps to level the playing field and the little Europe revels in the big waves. Our Brit abroad, Graham Hutchings, had organised some training for the Friday; after unloading the boats in the morning, local Belgium Class Coach Nicolas D'Hordt talked through a few basics and was keen to launch. As soon as we had launched it became apparent that this was going to be interesting! With a building breeze and big rolling waves, this was very different to the usual Solent chop / inland lakes most of the UK sailors were used to. Short upwind legs, focusing on keeping the boat flat and tacking was followed by downwind runs, with most taking a swim or two whilst trying to work out how to manage the waves. Everyone called it a day after an hour and retired to the bar for a debrief and general chat of what to expect over the weekend.
Saturday dawned with bright skies, a stiff breeze and those waves still very present, the fleet of 75 boats launched and after a slight delay in setting the course attempted to get under way. An inevitable general recall or two saw race 1 get under way under the U flag, which caught a few of the favourites out. The U flag was much present for the whole of the event, with so many boats and quite a strong tide this was accepted by all with good grace.
The breeze and waves built during the day, with a number of the fleet making the decision to go ashore either after race 1 or 2. Each with their own story to tell on the size of the rogue wave that caught them out, or the huge gust that literally knocked them flat. By race 3 the reduced fleet started in the windiest conditions, but a sudden downpour flattened the sea and behind it came a much lighter swinging breeze. The final beat proved decisive for many sailors with multiple places to be gained or lost.
The race committee called it a day after three races and the sailors returned to the shore and enjoyed dinner together in the Royal North Sea Yacht Club, a great opportunity to talk to fellow sailors form different nationalities. Tim Laws and Malcom Morley led the UK charge overnight, with both getting into the top 20, with Graham Hutchings (sailing under his Belgium nationality) making it into the top 15.
Day 2 dawned with what looked like less breeze, however an hour postponement was necessary due to the sea state, with big rollers coming into the harbour meaning launching was not safe. Once the waves had calmed down sufficiently the fleet launched into what initially seemed lighter wind and calmer seas, however both the breeze and waves picked up quickly and the 1st race started in similar conditions to day 1. The main take out from race 1 is the big rolling waves for some great downwind surfing.
There were more casualties of the U Flag in race 2, with Tim Laws being amongst those too eager to start. The breeze went lighter during the race but the waves remained, allowing those with the skill to make the most of the pumping rule for some fantastic downwind surfing, failure to get this right meant rapid loss of places.
The third and final race of the day was in trickier conditions with the breeze swinging right and a strong tide kicking in and changing direction during the race, the race committee rapidly changed the course, but a number of sailors missed the signals and were caught out on the wrong side of the shifts and the course.
With a discard kicking in on day 2, unfortunately the British places fell, however both Malcom and Tim made it into the top 30 in 28th and 29th places respectively, George Crammond coming in a very credible 39th especially as the sea state had very little in common with his usual sailing waters at Staunton Harold.
At the front of the fleet a close battle had played out all weekend, with the win finally going to Stijn van Hoye taking it from Jasper Simoens with Killian Vermeersch in a close third making it a Belgium 1,2,3. Best placed non-Belgium went to French sailor Olivier Lalance in fourth.
It was impressive to see the leaders and how they managed the big seas both upwind and downwind, revelling in the surfing conditions and showcasing the versatility of the Europe.
Five tired but happy UK sailors packed up their boats and made the journey back across to the UK, in time for work and school on Monday morning. From the South Coast the trip is just 5 hours and with the warm welcome and fantastic sailing this is an event the class will go back to and hopefully with a bigger UK contingent in 2020.
The weekend of the 21/22nd September sees the final event of the UK Europe calendar for 2019 with the Inland championships, with 20+ boats intending to attend this will be the last chance to sail together as a fleet this year.
28th - Malcolm Morley
29th - Tim Laws
39th - George Crammond
63rd - Lucy Boreham
66th - Ellie Clarke
Full Results HERE