Clubs in the Midlands have been coming up with innovative new ways to run racing so that duties are not only more socially distanced but also easier to manage.

The pandemic resulted in clubs needing to find ways to simplify their race management to reduce the number of people on a committee boat or running racing from an onshore box.

When informal recreational boating first returned in 2020, options for adding a competitive element included sailor-run gate starts and using apps such as BeatRacing and Strava.

Some Midlands clubs also discovered hidden talent as members and staff stepped up to become inventors of new automated race management systems.

Lights, horn, action

At Draycote Water SC, chief instructor Matt Rowley came up with an automated system for running the club racing after lockdown one, when it became impossible to have two or more members on the committee boat unless they were from the same household.

For pursuit races, Matt had already created a DVD a couple of years previously, which shows a countdown to datum and then a count up on screens in the clubhouse corresponding to a display on the committee boat, enabling sailors on shore and on the water to time their start correctly according to their GY number, with the race officer pressing a horn at each start time.

With the new challenges of 2020, time on his hands during lockdown and a little background knowledge from an A Level in Electronics, Matt then decided to create an easy-to-run traffic light and horn race management system which can be run from the committee boat by just one person.

It not only enables the club to meet Covid restrictions but has also made club race duties less onerous for members who are not always confident about what to do.

With a budget of just £200, the club sourced red, yellow and green lights from Amazon and fixed them, along with a horn, to a column created from plastic and a drainpipe.

A trailer lighting cable was then used to connect a control box containing the ‘brains’ of the system: two microchips programmed by Matt to govern the lights and starting hoots, plus the fleet start number displayed on a course board.

Power comes from the battery and solar panels on the committee boat and the person running the racing only has to press a button on a hand-held controller, which is wired to the control box, to start the racing sequence, which for Draycote Water SC is a repeating 3,2,1 for up to 9 different fleets.

The Officer of the Day starts a stopwatch from 5 minutes to go, then at 4 minutes presses the start button on the automated system. They then simply have to remember to look down the line and hold up an individual or general recall flag if necessary, alongside manually sounding one or two hoots, and record the race results - plus times for the handicap fleets - at the finish after pressing the ‘shorten course’ button and raising the flag.

For those racing, the only key change is that there is no longer a hoot when they cross the finish line, as the one person on the committee boat is writing down the results.

Matt said: “The idea is to keep things simple so that one person can run the club racing. You don’t need a chief OD plus one or two assistant ODs, and anyone who usually races can manage this system because it’s just a case of pressing a button and we can help with setting the course.

“We’d been thinking about how to introduce electronic starting for ages and 2020 was an opportunity to do it so we took it. Now we have a system which is a really efficient way of managing club racing, not only while we need social distancing but also for the future.”

Matt Rowley with his automated starting system at Draycote Water SC, credit Paula IrishRacing app

RYA Dinghy Instructor Hannah Whitham, of Toddbrook SC, designed a phone app that provides a fully functional timer which tells the race officer which flags use, counts down to the start and uses a pre-programed file of PY numbers to calculate handicap fleet racing results.

Hannah, aged 17, wanted to create an app that was helpful for simplifying race management in the light of social distancing during the pandemic and also to bridge the gap in knowledge for club members who may be unsure about what to do in between infrequent duties.

“I was trying to think of a project for my A level Computer Science and wanted to make something that people would find useful,” says Hannah. “At our sailing club we take it in turns to do race duties so we only have to do it a couple of times every year and we also have new members who are not sure what to do. Some people struggle with taking the times and calculating the results and I thought it would be easier if they could do it instantly on their phone.

“With the app you add the PY number for each boat entering a race, it tells you the flag sequence, you tap a button to add a lap each time a boat comes through the line, and it calculates the results for you at the end. It keeps it simple and worked well when I used it to run a race.”

The app saves each boat so if someone regularly sails it can be added to the next race. It is hard coded with PY numbers but it could also be programmed to fetch them from the RYA website.

Hannah adds: “As the race progresses the app predicts who’s next over the line for each lap, shuffling that boat to the top of the ranking so it’s easy to spot them, and it works out the final times as you go, so if someone’s in last place on the water, for example, you can see they are actually in 4th, not 10th, and I quite like that feature.”

The app is designed for android phones and Hannah hopes to continue testing and developing it after her A levels to make it available for download via an app store and even more user-friendly.

Hannah Whitham with her phone app at Toddbrook SCAutomated starting

At Cransley Sailing Club, volunteer John Linnell uses skills from his working life as a mechanical engineer to ensure that anything with an engine is operational, including a weed cutter which he designed and constructed to help keep the lake sailable.

His dedication to supporting Cransley SC, which saw him receiving an RYA Volunteer Award in 2020, has also included devising an automated starting system for running racing at the club.

He explains: “We were scrapping some machines at work and this really ancient PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) came out of it, so I reprogrammed it to provide a clock with a 5,4,1 minute countdown to the start and it also sounds the horn for you at the right intervals. Then when the final the hooter goes, it brings on the race clock. All you have to do is press a button to start the relay and it tells you exactly where you are on the timings. It saves a lot of hassle.”

John has wired it to be solar powered and although development went on hold during lockdown three, he is now back on the case. After helping to rebuild the club’s race hut - which is a current work in progress - John says he will be looking at how to develop the starting system to also hoist and lower the flags at the right time: “Anything to make life simple!”

Volunteer John Linnell at Cransley SCDoes your club have an inventor?

If your club has come up with innovative new ways of doing things or has an inventor who has helped to make club life easier, the RYA Midlands team would love to hear about it. Get in touch via our Regional Communicator to share your stories!