Jo Hewitson became the new chairman of the RS Elite Association in June of this year, with a brief to build on retiring chairman Paul Fisk’s tireless work over the previous five years.
As a competitor in the Brewin Dolphin RS Elite International Grand Prix, held at the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes at the beginning of June, Jo was particularly impressed by the sense of excitement and enthusiasm of everyone involved, whether they were sailing at the front of the fleet or further down the rankings. She feels strongly that it is important to build on this to ensure the continuing success and growth of the class.
Jo and her husband Tom are relatively recent converts to the RS Elite. Although the learning curve was steep at first, sailing their boat Shaken Not Stirred with Tom on the helm, Colin Smith in the middle and Jo at the front, they have won one National Championship and two Southern Area Championships in the last two years. They also took third place in the recent International Grand Prix.
Jo and Tom had previously sailed RS400s, starting in 1995, and then moved to RS200s around the turn of the millennium, after their children were born. They were very keen. Jo says “We did all the events and had some success.” These were good times for the RS200 with typically 50-60 boats attending an open meeting and 80-90 boats at the Inlands.
In the early days of RS when the only boats they produced were the 400, the 200 and the 600, Jo was for a time the chairman of the RS Association. Jo and Tom had a break for a number of years from 2007 or so and returned to the RS200 in 2015. By that time the class was dominated by a new generation of young people who, whilst they were very enthusiastic and were excellent sailors, did not have the confidence to take the class forward.
Jo then became chairman of the RS200 Association and was able to provide an experienced pair of hands, institute a programme of forward planning and help bring on the younger people so that they now have an extremely strong committee made up of the age group who are sailing the boat.
So what are her plans for the RS Elite? Jo says “I want a good committee who all take part with responsibilities spread, where people all do their own jobs and feel free to make decisions.” To that end she has broadened the scope of the committee and included the class captains of the existing UK RS Elite fleets. The aim is to provide a framework for future years. Planning is well under way for the 2023 season, with dates in place for all the major events.
With dates already set for the Southern and Eastern Area Championships and Chichester Harbour Race Week, the committee is also looking at the possibility of having one or more additional open events in 2023.
Jo’s experience with the RS200s has been that it is important to plan the programme of events at top venues several years in advance to show that the fleet has longevity; and to promote them well in advance. The committee is already evaluating possible national championship venues for 2024 and 2025. The class is currently looking at the Royal Southern Yacht Club at Hamble, with its wide experience in running keelboat events, as a provisional venue for 2024.
Since the Royal Southern has no incumbent RS Elite fleet to take a lead in organising social, entertainment and other off-the-water activities, Jo has proposed to set up a subgroup to organise this and make the event special in every respect.
On the international front Jo is really excited about a proposal from Tønsberg Seilforening in Norway for an annual match racing challenge. She says: “This will be sailed in borrowed local boats so anyone can go. All that’s needed is a flight to Norway. We can hold a return match at a club such as the Royal Burnham Yacht Club where the sailing waters will be sheltered like the Norwegian fjords but the river venue will be rather different.” The Norwegian Challenge is currently under active development.
At club level the largest fleet is at Jo’s own club at Hayling Island and the fleet there is still growing, with a waiting list for dry sailing spaces. The Burnham fleet is in a period of transition with new blood bringing a resurgence in numbers. Jo says “I have already visited Burnham and I think there is a lot of excitement amongst the sailors and there is growing interest in the Elite from people sailing other boats. The Association will organise a training event in Burnham in the spring of next year.”
The Northern Ireland fleet is also in a period of transition. However with their strong performance in the International Grand Prix and with two major championship events in Ireland in 2023 there now seems to be considerable interest and enthusiasm. The Association will run a training event in Ireland next spring as well as in Burnham.
Jo feels that if a strong programme of events is established other fleets will be encouraged. She would love to see a strong fleet emerge in Cowes again, or in Bembridge. This would also provide the basis for RS Elite fleets to get together the Eastern and Central Solent.
In the first instance she feels that the key to the future of the class is a strong framework of events. She says: “small steps at first, the main thing is just to get the framework in place; to reinforce our relationship with RS to make sure we are all working in the same direction; and to make sure that the three fleets we have at club level are working well. You have got to get the ground right first before we can start building up to new growth.”
The next few years should be very interesting ones for the RS Elite class.