Where are they now – mast rams, continuous trapezes, spinnaker bow chutes and K9407?

By Andy Carran (CAN 12357)

I was a bit horrified when Phil Locker suggested I put on paper some of my reminiscences of Fireballs in the olden days of the 1970s. I’m no aged grandfather, but my wife Tricia and I are returning Fireball sailors who have come back to the class in the last two years, a long time after sailing Fireballs in the UK from 1975 to 1981. In fact we are owners of 1˝ Fireballs, but we’ve lost the half – more of that later. So we are long time ‘Ballers, even though that experience doesn’t seem to add up to much knowledge on the racecourse.

My Fireball experience began when I took up my first proper job in Eastern Scotland, far from where I’d been raised. A friendly co-worker soon looked at my six-foot tall and (then) skinny frame, and asked if I’d ever sailed, and did I fancy crewing a Fireball. My answers were "about twice" (I exaggerated) and "yes", and I was soon ‘hooked’. I joined my joint-favourite club of all time, Dalgety Bay SC, and started finding out about its fleet of fifteen ‘Balls. My skipper was an incredible guy. He was an amputee, and he drove his prostheticist to despair every few months by taking back yet another sea-water damaged artificial leg. One time, as we recovered from a capsize, he shouted "Look after the boat, my leg’s come off". We managed to grab it, and I soldiered on single handed for the next half of the reach while he adjusted more straps and buckles than I’ve ever seen, even on today’s trapeze harnesses.

Sailing at DBSC, on the Forth estuary near Edinburgh, is (even) more difficult than anywhere I’ve been since. Cold salt water, big waves, passing ships, and a tidal range up to 18 feet. Knowing the state of the tide is even more important than reading wind shifts, since the water rushing in or out of the estuary every six hours can be worth four or five mph over the ground. At least we were rarely lonely sailing there: seals abounded, and seemed fascinated by boats. They would watch us, their heads out of the water, only diving when a boat came too close. A Fireball collided with a seal one night when the animal misjudged their tack.

After a couple of years with my first helm, a buddy and I decided to buy a boat, and we became proud owners of K9407, Incorrigiball. The boat had been 1974 Scottish champion with its builder Jock Blair, but once Andy and I owned it, its career was all downhill. Although my Fireball career doesn’t go back to Fireballs without trapezes (I don’t think it took Peter Milne long to find out he’d missed something from the design), our boats had some strange features compared to today. We used bow chutes for the spinnaker, coupled with a continuous halyard (the free end was led back through the chute to two eyes in the middle of the spinnaker, so reversing the direction of pull on the halyard collapsed the sail back into its stowage). No pump-ups, so the helm’s arms were a blur of motion during hoists and drops! Bow chutes certainly taught the value of keeping the nose out of the waves. The chute led from the bow to a tube in the cockpit, so a moment submarining would lead to a swamped cockpit full of lightweight sailcloth, which would invariably snag on a cleat or try to squeeze itself through the bailers. Tricia’s frequent stitchery resulted in a sail that, in only one season of our inexpert handling, was more repair tape than original cloth!

Mast struts hadn’t been invented yet, but mast rams and muscle boxes were introduced to manage mast bend at the mast gate on the foredeck. I don’t remember much discussion of mast rake then. Many masts were of very bendy sections – ours was a skinny Needlespar. International Fireball published (yes, the magazine came out several times per year!) an illustrated tuning guide, and I remember eagerly opening our copy. Imagine my excitement on seeing a photo of OUR boat on a storming reach! Fame at last! Then I read the caption: "Here is an example of a boat whose mast bend is hopelessly out of control."

Many interesting gadgets appeared on people’s boats, most of which served to slow them down. Continuous trapezes were meant to speed tacks since the crew didn’t have to unhook, but many times the crew would launch him/herself on the new windward side ineffectively suspended only by shock cord, having failed to engage the half-hook. Fly-away spinnaker poles were launched with one mighty tug by the helm, but frequently neglected to take the guy line with them. The mast end of the pole relied only on rope tension to hold it in place, so it protruded alarmingly towards the crew, with several hundred pounds of tension just waiting to hurl it aft if the rope gave way. I see that what goes around, comes around: today’s new generation of skiff type racers seem to have bow chutes and flyaway bowsprits, but they do have decent bow freeboard to stop the submarining!

I have many startling memories of our first boat. Tricia and I never sailed it together after our one time racing when I put us aground on rocks on the falling tide: she then learned her Fireball crewing from an experienced helm. Other memories include:

Like many Brits, when we first came to Canada it was for "just a couple of years", so we left Incorrigiball in my co-owners hands. But we’ve since lost touch, so if anyone ever comes across K(GBR)9407, please let us know: half of it is ours!