With just a month until the Little Britain Challenge Cup gets under way, Katie Puckett meets three industry amphibians who’ve found true love off the coast of England
Jack Pringle RIBA president and partner in Pringle Brandon
“I think that if you sail as a teenager, you get the bug and it lies dormant,” says Jack Pringle. He had all but forgotten his youthful dinghy-sailing days on the River Trent until 15 years ago, when he seized on sailing as an alternative to beach holidays.
Two years ago he ditched the holiday spirit, got serious and bought his own 40 ft yacht for £12,000. It was an IMX 40 that had been part of the French team for the 2002 Commodores’ Cup. He renamed it Mankie, from his daughters’ names, Max and Frankie, but it was never going to be an excuse for family outings. “The first year I sailed with friends and colleagues,” he says. “But you soon realise that if you want to be really competitive you’ve got to pull together a much more serious team.”
Ever since, he’s been trying to make a name for himself in the sailing world. “It takes a long time before you’re seen as serious, as someone who people want to sail with. You turn up, you’ve got a terrible crew, you do badly. It took about 18 months before people started to say ‘that boat is really going somewhere’ and they have confidence in what you’re trying to do.”
This year is the first, Pringle says, that he’s had a team he’s really happy with. There are 12 in total, including three women and a man from the Canadian Olympic team.
Competitive sailing is an expensive business. On top of the cost of the boat, there are the fees for getting it in and out of the water and cleaning and storing it – Pringle says he put Mankie through the process 42 times last year. This maintains the competitive advantage but he tries not to think about how much it is costing him. “You just close your eyes and write the cheques.”
His worst moment was watching the destruction of a new £2500 spinnaker during Cowes Week last year. “We hoisted it for the first time but it got hit by a big gust of wind and it turned into confetti in front of my eyes.”
It will take more than that to dent Pringle’s enthusiasm for the sport. Last year he sailed every weekend apart from in December. “I think I probably did about 70 races, from all sorts of regattas, all sorts of series, class championships, to being part of the British team for the Commodores’ Cup. We won quite a few. It’s a very steep learning curve and the competition is really strong. When you’re sailing upfront in a race, it’s probably the most exciting thing you’ll ever do. When you’re back down the fleet, it doesn’t really work, but in first, second, third places you get a real adrenalin buzz.”
Pringle’s latest attempt to woo the hardcore sailing community is Fraxious, a Farr 45, and again an amalgamation of his daughters’ names. The new boat cost about the same as the IMX 40 but is a far more serious craft. “That was part-cruiser, part-racer; this is an all-out racer,” he says. “It’s a very economic way to get into
big-boat racing. We’re entering a class where boats cost three or four times the amount we spent but we’re still competitive and can win.” Not at Little Britain though, where Pringle will also be sailing – he says the class rules will put Fraxious at too much of a disadvantage.
When you’re sailing upfront in a race, it’s probably the most exciting thing you’ll ever do
Fraxious is not the sort of vessel you would take for a leisurely weekend’s cruising. “It’s completely stripped out. The cooker is the most basic thing – it’s just a little bracket you can attach a calor gas bottle to. There’s no oven. It used to have water tanks but we’ve thrown them away. To be honest, I’m not keen on all this upholstery business.”
- Length 45 ft
- Width 13 ft, 11 ins
- Displacement (weight) 17,600 lbs
- Sail area 1335 ft²
- Top speed 18 knots
Chris Houchin Business development director at Bovis and race director for Little Britain
“You don’t have to spend a lot of money,” says Chris Houchin, confounding the popular perception of sailing as a rich man’s sport. Dinghies like his 14 ft Finn can cost £17,000, but he got his secondhand for £1000 seven years ago. Berthing fees at Burghfield, a gravel pit 20 minutes from his Northamptonshire house, are £60 a year, and since he bought it,
he’s spent only £25 on a sail. “I might need to think about doing some more to it soon,” he muses, “although all the bits work, nothing’s broken. I’ve got a soft spot for the Finn, actually. It can be physically quite demanding, but it’s good when there’s a nice wind. It’s nice to go out and play.” He likes it, he says, because he can go out whenever he likes without having to organise anyone else.
But sailing his Finn is mainly a winter pursuit for Houchin. He does go out most weekends but he’s more likely to be with friends in Cornwall or racing in the Solent.
He jointly owns a J/24 yacht in Falmouth with some fellow parents he met on the “optimists” circuit for young sailors – Houchin used to coach and took his kids all over the country when they were younger. Again, it wasn’t a big investment. A new J/24 costs about £20,000, but they spent only £4000. “We sail competitively, but we don’t spend a great deal of money doing it. We sail to enjoy it as well as to win. We almost purposefully don’t give ourselves the best bits of kit so that when we lose, we have an excuse.”
But, of course, sailing can be an extremely expensive activity if you want it to be. Houchin is raving about his recent three-week cruise around Turkey in a 38 ft yacht and says he’s wondering about buying a “seagoing caravan”. But the one he’s got his eye on costs £250,000. “That’s why it’s a bit of a challenge at the moment.”
In the meantime, like many enthusiasts, Houchin does his most serious sailing on a wealthier person’s boat – he is one of a team of three on a Laser SB3 owned by Mike Riley at developer Castlemore, which came ninth in the nationals last year. “Owners of yachts have a certain presence,” he says. “To enjoy their hobby they need other people to help them do it.”
We almost purposefully don’t give ourselves the best bits of kit so that when we lose, we have an excuse
Houchin started sailing at a young age. His older brother got him into it when he was 10 or 11, and he bought his first boat, a 14 ft Merlin Rocket, for £100 when he was 16. By the time he was 24, he was part of the team that won the national championships at Weymouth Bay in 1979 and 1980. They were selected to go to the Moscow Olympics in 1980 – but then Russia invaded Afghanistan and the yachting authority decided not to send the team. This is Houchin’s greatest sailing regret. “I did dream for a long time of standing on the Olympic podium. If we’d gone, we were fancied to win something.” Instead, they watched their Irish training partners go home with the silver medal. Their luck didn’t improve four years later, when they just missed out on selection for the Los Angeles Games.
Since then, he believes, the sport has become more professional. “The mid-1980s was the last time you could race at international level and hold a job down. I was working for Wimpey in those days. They were very good. They didn’t pay me much money but they gave us lots of time off.”
This year, Chris is race director for Little Britain, but he says there will be no pangs of longing as he watches the sailors head off. “Actually I enjoy it. Somebody’s got to do the admin and it’s quite nice to put something back into a sport I’ve been enjoying for 40-odd years.”
Aboard the Finn
- Length 14 ft 9 ins
- Width 4 ft, 10 ins
- Displacement (weight) 319 lbs
- Sail area Main, 115 ft²
- Top speed 16 knots
Roger Barton Senior consultant, Mott MacDonald
Before he went into consultancy, Roger Barton spent 24 years in the Royal Navy as a weapons engineer, but he’s still getting to grips with Inspiration, the 25 ft yacht he bought two years ago. “I’ve sailed all my life, but when you have your own boat there’s an awful lot to learn. I’m still a newbie in terms of yachting. I’ve been to the other side of the Solent and stayed overnight in a few marinas, but it’s amazing how quickly the summer goes. One never has enough time.”
In summer, he tries to get out at least every other weekend, even if it’s just for a few hours. Berthing fees are £700 a year and, in addition, it costs £200 at the start and end of the summer to transfer it between land and sea. “My wife will determine how much time I spend yachting. She’s not a very good sailor – she gets seasick quite easily – and she’s selective about the weather. But last weekend, some chums came up from Dorset and we sailed out to the Isle of Wight and stayed over.”
Despite her landlubbery tendencies, it was Barton’s wife who first spotted an MG Spring at a boat show, and suggested they buy it. Barton initially baulked at the idea. “It was a bit more expensive than I intended,” he admits. They can cost £17,000 – still cheap for a yacht – but Barton eventually found Inspiration and knocked the price of down to £10,500 because it needed some work to reduce the water content in the hull.
He hasn’t raced Inspiration yet, as he still hasn’t got a spinnaker. The sail and pole will cost about £600, he reckons, which he’s decided is a job for the winter. Last year, he bought a chart plotter, this year it will be the spinnaker and an indicator for wind speed and direction. “I try and phase it; there’s always lots to do.”
My wife will determine how much time I spend yachting. he’s not a very good sailor – she gets seasick quite easily
It was an MG Spring that was used in the 1980s television series Howards’ Way. Barton is pleased with his, even if it’s not as steady as other yachts (which may make Mrs Barton yearn for an upgrade). “It’s very responsive if you’re a keen sailor. You trim the sails and set the course and you can feel it running away.” Inside, there are six berths, a cooker and a toilet – though no shower, again to the chagrin of his wife. “You could take a case with a couple of changes of clothes and go off for a week or so. It is cosy on board – if you had six people it would be pretty crowded.”
Barton gained his Yachtmaster qualification in 2003 from the Royal Yachting Association, after going to nightschool once a week for nine months. He says that even though he’s sailed professionally, there is still plenty for him to learn.
His main preoccupation when he’s out at sea is safety: “A lot of people take things for granted – more than they should. Anyone can buy a boat, go to a marina and sail off with no thought to safety, and end up a bit of a liability. People are okay when they’re sober but they have a couple of beers and
get in the way of the boom and topple overboard.”
Barton knows this at first hand. He made an unscheduled appearance in the briny shortly after he’d left the navy and had taken his 14 ft dinghy to its first race meeting on a freezing March day. By lunchtime, his 14-year-old son said he had had enough, so Barton took an older but inexperienced sailor out instead.
“It was blowing a force six. The wind eddies around things; one moment it was calm, the next there was such a sudden gust, I lost my footing on the boat. I knew I was going to fall overboard so I dived gracefully over the side. It was bitterly cold. I came up and started gasping for breath, and the other guy’s just staring at me. I started shouting to him, ‘turn the boat around and come to me’. He failed a few times, then capsized just before he was about to run me down. We then had the pleasure of righting the boat and limping home. That event put my son off sailing for about 10 years.”
- Length 25 ft 6 ins
- Width 9 ft
- Displacement 4405 lbs
- Sail area Main, 330 ft²
- Top speed In excess of 7 knots