Obituary: Major Peter Snowden

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Peter Barry Snowden, sailor and yachting administrator: born Pinhoe, Devon 20 August 1919; British Olympic Team Manager Naples 1960; Secretary Cowes Combined Clubs 1972-90; OBE 1992; died Newport, Isle of Wight 22 March 1993.

PETER SNOWDEN was appointed OBE in 1992 for 'services to yachting'. He took part in almost every aspect of sailing from small dinghies to large ocean racers and in the administrative side as well, but his main work was for 18 years as Secretary of Cowes Combined Clubs and at the same time of the Solent Cruising and Rowing Association.

Of these tasks the former was undoubtedly the heavier. Time was when each local club ran its own regatta on one or more days of Cowes Week. This no doubt gave the spice of variety to the competitors but as numbers increased variety tended to generate chaos. The clubs involved decided to have a common programme with one set of sailing instructions instead of four or five.

Before Snowden there were two part-time and honorary secretaries. He was the first full-time paid official. His great success lay in reducing the risk of avoidable mistakes to a minimum and changing the method of starting and finishing races to accommodate ever increasing numbers.

He was never the overall director of racing. The individual clubs produced their team of race officers for their particular race days. The race officers still had to take the awkward decisions: whether the breeze was strong enough to give everyone a chance of completing a course; choosing courses that were best suited to conditions of wind and tide and did not conflict with each other; judging whether the wind was too strong for some classes.

The mechanics of starting a yacht race are quite complex - a warning gun and flag signal 10 minutes before the start; another gun and flag signal five minutes before the start; a gun and flag signal at the start; with another if any boat is over the start line before time; and, if there are too many boats over the line to be a identified, a third gun to signal a general recall, which requires a new start.

That procedure for up to 20 separate starts - some involving 50 or 60 boats, perhaps with a postponement for lack of wind and one or more general recalls - can leave virtually no time for the last classes to get a race.

The Snowden solution was to split the starting time in two, the smaller boats inshore, the bigger ones offshore so that there could be a start every five minutes instead of every 10. As the offshore starters could not always see the flags or the gunsmoke, let alone hear the bangs, they were given a radio frequency on which they could get the details of their course and hear the race officer counting down to their start.

The finishes were split too: the big boats on what had been the inner start line and the small ones off East Cowes. That diminished but did not entirely remove the race officers' nightmare of boats of many different classes crossing the finishing line in one enormous bunch. All the results were computerised, with handicaps worked out in a flash. Cowes week had entered the electronic age.

It had also entered the sponsorship age and work had to go on all the year round to tie up all the ends and leave nothing to chance. To produce the programme - with nearly 1,000 boats competing over eight days - the sailing instructions and the courses was a fine achievement and typical of the meticulous infrastructure without which Cowes Week would have collapsed into chaos. That is a measure of Peter Snowden's services to yachting.