Now celebrating its 80th anniversary, Portsmouth’s Victory Class Sailing Club has a long and vibrant history. Lindsay Walsh meets the men and women keeping the passion alive in the 21st century.
As a coastal city, the sea is in many Portsmouth residents’ blood.
From ferries and the commercial port to fishing boats and the Royal Navy, for many it’s a job.
But as important as the sea is for the working lives of many in the city, it’s also a great place to have fun – and that is something that lies at the very heart of Portsmouth’s Victory Class Sailing Club.
‘The Victory Class was designed to be fun, lively and so that they wouldn’t drown a novice,’ chuckles Gareth Penn, Victory Class captain.
The Victory Class was originally designed in 1934 by boat designer Alfred Westmacott. At that time there were many different styles of sailing boat and the Victory Class was designed to create a unified fleet where every sailor could compete on an even playing field in an identical boat.
Gareth explains: ‘When you’re racing you want all the boats to be identical so that it’s not about the money, it’s about who is the better helm.
‘The alternative is a handicap system, but with a fleet of one design where you finish on the water is your result.’
The Victory Class’s popularity as racing boats grew thanks to its connection to the navy.
‘There is a very strong connection between the Victory Class and the navy because Portsmouth is a naval town,’ says Gareth.
‘In 1934 most people had a connection with the navy and naval officers wanted to sail. We still have a close link now. One of the guys that sails with us regularly is the Commander of HMS Bristol and we have a couple of other more junior officers that also sail with us.
‘There were also 13 boats that went to Gibraltar and having sailed there they’ve still got a good number of those in commission.
‘The most recent went in 1983 and 1946 seems to be the earliest that boats were taken to Gibraltar.
‘I would imagine they would all be people that were originally sailing in Portsmouth. The class history supports that and the boats then went to Gibraltar when the owners were posted there by the navy.
‘There are 23 boats in the Gibraltar Victory Class now so I would imagine that some of those have been built locally.’
He adds: ‘We tend to do a sort of bi-annual, they visit us we visit them and they are coming to us at the end of September this year to do some racing. The Gibraltar sailors really give us a run for our money.
‘They are very competent, very good sailors. They won the last meeting so when they come back we’re going to work very hard to make amends!’
The solid construction of the Victory Class boats means that they last long enough to have several different owners, often being handed down from generation to generation
‘There’s a lot of nostalgia tied up with this class,’ says Gareth.
‘I first got involved with Victories because my father had one so I was introduced to them from a very young age, basically got hooked and I’m still here. It’s one of those classes that gets under your skin.
‘All the members of the class are absolutely thrilled that we are custodians of our vessels and that we’re going to pass them on. You think of Z6, the oldest boat in the fleet. It was built in 1934, it was in the first ever race and it was racing last night. It’s had nine owners which is incredible – you just wouldn’t get that with a modern boat.
‘They’re absolutely sturdily built. They feel quite heavy, but they are still responsive. They feel well made. You’re sat in something that’s a lot more like a piece of furniture than a racing boat – that’s part of the charm.’
The boats’ traditional wooden construction means that they require maintenance over the winter when they are not racing, which helps to create a tight-knit sailing community.
Gareth says: ‘Part of the strength of our class is that in winter when we’re not racing we’re all looking after our boats so we’re still seeing everybody – we’re still a community of sailors. With modern boats that’s less so the case. You finish racing, you get the hose out, wash off the salt and that’s it packed up.
‘With a Victory as a minimum you’ve got to remove the current year’s paint, prime and put the next year’s paint on. You’re also going to go through a regular routine of replacing and repairing various different parts of the boat.
‘Within the club you’ve got people who are very good carpenters, you might have people that are better with metalwork and we’ve got a rigger who’s a member and a sailmaker. That’s one of the real strengths of the club, that although we’re extremely competitive everyone will share absolutely everything.’
Victory Class membership secretary Bubbles Stewart agrees: ‘What happens on the water stays on the water but there’s a good competitive spirit,’ she says. ‘You want to do the best for your boat on the water but you come back in and help everyone get their boats away and then have a beer together in the pub.
‘The fleet is 15 to 20 boats at week meets and the racing is extremely competitive. We race for 60 different trophies and we also race on Christmas Day in the morning.’
‘It’s a lovely group from all backgrounds. We have about 130 members at the moment and that’s growing. We have members from Portsmouth, Romsey, Lymington, Stubbington and Petersfield and sailors from 14 to 74. It’s an incredibly welcoming club and there’s a lot of passion for the boats.’
Having owned a Victory for four years with her husband Jock, this passion is something Bubbles knows about first hand.
‘We sail on a budget and sailing is one of our biggest passions,’ she says. ‘We wanted to sail our own boat and put our passion into it.
‘Isobel is 68 and we spent about four months every Saturday and some Sundays restoring her.
‘She’d been out of the water for six to seven years but Jock and I launched her and she sunk in 60 seconds! Then we realised we needed to strategically sink her for a year to get water to soak up into the wood again. After another four months’ work we had her back. On my first race I got a round of applause just for hitting the start line! She’s sailed ever since and has gone from the back of the fleet to the front of the fleet in four years.’
Bubbles thinks the secret to succes in Victory Class is having a good relationship with your crew and being in tune with your vessel.
‘It’s all about spending the time on the water, learning your boat and knowing what the other sailors are going to do.’
‘You can have the best kit in the world and the newest boat but it’s all about the crew working the boat and getting the kit to work for you.
‘It’s inspiring sailing a Victory. No two days are ever the same; the wind is always shifting, the clouds are different. You have to think about what’s going on inside and outside the boat.’
‘The sails and the tiller have all got to be in the right balance for the wind, so you are constantly reading and feeling the boat. She’s got her own personality, she speaks to you when she’s in the water. You can feel that balance and hear the difference.’
n To learn more about Portsmouth Victory Class sailing, visit portsmouth.co.uk/video.